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2-Way Street for Bilingual Education
San Bernardino schools' two-language goal starts with kindergartners.
Critics say 'dual immersion' is an end run around Prop. 227.
Octobert 20, 2003
By Kristina Sauerwein, Times Staff Writer
Dequwan Wells' family tells him that being bilingual will help him get a good
job one day.
But the 7-year-old has his own motive for wanting to learn Spanish along with
his native English. "I can have more friends if I can talk two languages," the
first-grader said, playing with a Spanish-speaking classmate during recess at
Lincoln Elementary School in San Bernardino.
San Bernardino is encouraging residents to become fluent in two languages, a
goal made official last year when officials declared San Bernardino a bilingual
city, and the local school district has followed their lead.
"To be successful in the 21st century, a person can no longer know just one
language," said Delfina Lopez Bryant, director of the district's English
Learners and Support Program, which coordinates professional development, parent
training and classroom content for non-English- speaking students.
At Lincoln, one of the city's largest elementary schools, students of all
backgrounds can learn English and Spanish as part of the San Bernardino Unified
School District's dual-immersion program. Starting in kindergarten, it mixes
native speakers of both languages in the same classroom so children can help
each other reach fluency.
Critics call dual immersion, practiced by 148 schools statewide, a veiled
version of traditional bilingual education, which California voters barred under
Proposition 227. The 1998 initiative mandated English instruction and sharply
limited bilingual education.
About 320 of the district's 57,000 students participate in the voluntary
program, with half of the students native English speakers. School officials
hope to offer the opportunity to all students within 10 years.
Districts in Los Angeles, Santa Ana and the Bay Area offer similar programs for
languages including Korean, Spanish, Chinese and Japanese.
Statewide, the San Bernardino school system "is a leader in these types of
programs," said Marcia Vargas, director of the "two-way," or dual immersion,
program for the California Assn. for Bilingual Education. Part of its
uniqueness, educators say, is a shared commitment to bilingualism by city and
Declaring San Bernardino a bilingual city was "not a matter of it being the nice
thing to do," Mayor Judith Valles said. "It's not a matter of being tolerant.
It's a matter of being smart and business savvy" in a global economy.
Besides, Valles said, many of California's cities already serve Spanish and
English speakers. Nearly half of San Bernardino's population is Latino,
according to the 2000 census.
"It's an important part of our identity," she said. "It's here, and we need to
It isn't only the students learning a second language. Beginning Tuesday, San
Bernardino will offer Spanish classes to the city's public-service employees.
However, studies show that young children have an easier time than adults in
grasping a new language.
At Lincoln, where 40% of the 1,400 students are native Spanish speakers, Anna
Vasquez teaches first-graders Spanish in the morning and English in the
afternoon. Her classroom is decorated in bright posters with dual language
phrases such as "Reading Is Power" and "Leer Es Poder."
Through song, stories and sketches, students learn that "campana" means "bell"
and "coche" is "car." The boys and girls have language buddies whom they ask for
"They like to help each other learn," said Ana Applegate, a vice principal at
Lincoln who oversees dual immersion and other academic programs. "They also
learn to appreciate each other's culture."
Ron Unz, who coauthored the 1998 initiative eliminating bilingual education
except for students whose parents sign waivers, said he is concerned that the
English-speaking students in dual-immersion learn less than their classmates in
"I don't see the benefit," said Unz, the millionaire owner of a Silicon Valley
Under traditional bilingual education, students learn academics in their native
language while also studying English. Once they learn enough English, they
gradually move into mainstream classes.
That was banned in favor of immersing nonnative speakers in English-only
Unz and other critics pointed out that under dual immersion, kindergartners
learn 90% of their lessons in Spanish. In first grade, that percentage decreases
"It sounds like bilingual education," Unz said, "with a different name."
By the fourth grade, dual-immersion students receive half of their instruction
in each language, said Erin Bostick Mason, dual-immersion coordinator for San
Bernardino County schools. Most students are biliterate by fifth or sixth grade.
In the beginning, the program emphasizes Spanish, or the minority language,
because studies have found that nonnative speakers are able to build a
foundation for a new language. Similarly, English speakers, who continue to
learn the dominant language in their everyday lives, are able to absorb a new
"Dual-immersion programs integrate our children and teach them all the value of
learning more than one language," Bostick Mason said. "We're teaching our
students to be bilingual and biliterate. We're aiming for the professional
San Bernardino Unified's baseline studies show that dual-immersion students
perform at or above grade level on state standardized tests. Bostick Mason said
that national research has found that as these students get older, their test
The San Bernardino schools in the program receive a total of $275,000 each year
as part of a five-year federal grant to implement the dual-immersion program.
The program is in its fourth year.
At Lincoln, all teachers have received varying levels of training in dual
immersion. Parents, too, receive information on the program. It is their choice
to have their children participate.
"Our parents like dual immersion because they see an immediate need for children
to know two languages," Bostick Mason said. "They're looking at the now and the
Dequwan Wells' parents like that he teaches them words in Spanish. He has three
cousins at Lincoln in the program.
"It's fun to talk that way," in Spanish, with family and friends, Dequwan said.
"I want to learn more."