English-only format gets mixed grades
Los Angeles Daily News
April 11, 2004
By Jennifer Radcliffe
Nearly six years after Californians banned bilingual
education, non-English-speaking students' scores on language tests have shown
improvement, but they still lag far behind other students' on standardized
Because of the mixed results from English-immersion programs implemented after
passage of Proposition 227, educators in the LAUSD and other school districts in
California are grappling with how to educate students best who are learning
English as a second language.
And some experts question whether immersion programs have proven themselves any
more effective than bilingual programs.
Students in a lesser-known language program, called dual immersion, are
outperforming both bilingual and immersion students, so some Los Angeles Unified
School District leaders are touting the program -- which pairs English and
non-English speakers -- as the wave of the future.
How to educate these students remains one of the most politically charged issues
in education. And with a recent LAUSD study showing that teachers are still
confused and underutilizing techniques to help English learners, some say more
training and research are needed.
"There may be improvement against itself, but the pace of the improvement is
still pathetically slow," LAUSD school board member David Tokofsky said.
"Whether or not that leads you to a conclusion of whether the programs have to
be more rigorous or more bilingual depends on what hat you're wearing."
Finding and replicating the best teaching techniques for the district's 350,000
English-language learners is one of the most formidable and urgent challenges
facing the Los Angeles Unified School District.
'Make it an advantage' Construction-paper monkeys swing from the makeshift rain
forest that decorates the ceiling of room 34 of Fair Avenue Elementary in North
Hollywood, a lush setting where Hank Amigo's third-graders work hard to learn in
English -- a language most of them don't speak at home.
They start school 25 minutes early, and work straight through recess. A lesson
about the British Isles is taught in song, and a skit about the signing of the
Declaration of Independence helps them learn about the nation's history.
It is this type of commitment and energy that's needed to help the youngsters
achieve and progress under LAUSD's structured English-immersion program.
"I'm trying to take a disadvantage and make it an advantage," Amigo said.
More than 90 percent of LAUSD students are in these immersion classes, where
nearly all instruction is provided in English, regardless of the child's native
language. The remainder have received waivers to remain in bilingual education,
where they receive English instruction for about an hour a day, but spend the
remainder learning in their native language.
At Fair Avenue Elementary, Amigo teaches mainly in English, although he is also
fluent in Spanish. The students are anxious to learn -- and it's not always easy
-- so he uses songs, skits and visuals to help get ideas across.
"You have to constantly bombard them," Amigo explains.
Across the courtyard in room 55, other third-graders are studying under LAUSD's
new phonics program, Open Court, while others play language-intensive computer
"All my kids here are learning English," teacher Maria Guzman said.
And LAUSD students do seem to be making gains. About 42 percent of the
district's English learners scored in the top two levels of this year's
California fluency exam -- just shy of the state average.
When the test debuted three years ago, only 16 percent of LAUSD students were
Guzman remembers the overnight change caused by the passage of Proposition 227.
With the elimination of Spanish-language instruction, bilingual teachers like
herself turned to their administrators and more experienced colleagues for
alternative instruction methods.
Without support, she says, "I would have just drowned and (the students) would
A language lost? Teacher Aida Caltenco knows the bilingual system from the other
side. She was in ninth grade when her family emigrated from Mexico to
Washington, D.C., where the former honors student was immediately placed in
remedial English classes.
"I was missing my chemistry, my biology, my math," Caltenco recalled.
She opted to attend regular classes with the help of tutors, but frustration
prompted her to abandon her dream of being a veterinarian to become a teacher
who could help immigrants learn English.
One of her first teaching assignments was a bilingual class, where Caltenco
taught students in their native Spanish. But the relentless push to get them to
speak only English after a few years was also frustrating.
"There was no goal of maintaining their first language," said Caltenco, 28. "By
third or fourth grade, parents could not communicate with their kids because
they had lost their language."
Caltenco said her next assignment was even worse. It was after the passage of
Proposition 227, and her Spanish-speaking students just stared at her while she
spoke to them in English.
"I could see the frustration of my kids because all the materials were in
English. They became really good at copying from each other."
Caltenco knew there had to be a better way.
Combined forces Gayle Nadler, 35, was bused during the 1970s from her Canoga
Park home to a magnet school near the University of Southern California, where
most of her classmates spoke Spanish. Nadler didn't have a chance to learn the
language, let alone chat with her classmates.
"We were always in separate groups -- separate reading groups, separate math
groups. It was frustrating."
Wanting a better alternative for her own daughter, Nadler opened the
Multicultural Learning Center in Canoga Park three years ago as a dual-immersion
charter school within LAUSD.
Each class combines native English speakers with native Spanish speakers.
Initially, students spend 90 percent of their day learning in Spanish, but by
fifth grade, instruction is half in English and half in Spanish. Caltenco is
among the teachers.
The goal is to help all 220 students -- regardless of whether English or Spanish
is their native tongue -- become bilingual.
Proponents say it helps students learn English more quickly while allowing them
to retain their native language.
On the most recent California English Language Development Test, nearly 70
percent of English-language learners in a dual program progressed at least one
fluency level, compared with just 49 percent of English-immersion and 50 percent
of bilingual students.
"I think (dual-immersion programs) provide an excellent education for both
groups of children," said Stephen Krashen, professor emeritus of education at
the University of Southern California.
Jasmin Martinez started kindergarten in an English-immersion class -- a
miserable experience for the youngster, whose Mexican immigrant parents spoke
Spanish at home.
She moved to the dual-immersion charter school as a first-grader, and has
gradually learned to speak English -- while also mastering the concepts taught
in her other classes
"I think it's cool because we can speak two languages at the same time," said
Jasmin, now 9, who is nearly fluent in English and hopes to someday tackle
But because of a shortage of highly qualified bilingual teachers and the
complexity of the program, fewer than 1 percent of LAUSD elementary students
learning English are in dual-language classes.
Statewide, there are about 155 dual-language programs, including about a dozen
in LAUSD, where officials say they plan to boost the programs in coming years.
Scrutiny needed Jill Kerper Mora, associate professor of teacher education at
San Diego State University, said educators and policy-makers need to scrutinize
the information collected since the passage of Proposition 227 to best determine
how to educate the state's diverse population -- and how to educate those who
will do the teaching.
"Now we have a picture of the learning curve and now we need to look at the real
policy implications. In an ideal world, parents would have the right to decide
and communities would have the right to decide what languages of instruction
would be used and how."
In the Los Angeles Unified School District, the answer may lie in creating more
dual-language programs. When the programs are well designed and feature highly
bilingual teachers, the results can be astounding, educators said.
"Something magical happens in that situation where they learn from each other,"
said Rita Caldera, LAUSD director of language acquisition.
Cahuenga Elementary in Los Angeles, where students speak primarily Spanish and
Korean, offers dual-language, English-immersion and bilingual programs. Test
results show that students in the dual-language program outperform those in the
Principal Lloyd Houske said he's not surprised that LAUSD is moving toward
"The test results are so high and they're all looking for the answer," he said.
"We've always had the answer."
Jennifer Radcliffe, (818) 713-3722