Vista school board, principals find common goal on bilingual education
October 1, 2005


VISTA ---- After nearly 12 hours of meetings with principals, Vista Unified School District trustees said Friday they seemed to have found a common goal: get kids who speak Spanish to learn English as fast as possible.

"In our district, (bilingual education) has not proven to work," said Trustee David Hubbard. "It's not an ideological issue. It is about getting kids proficient."

The move is a sea change for a district that until recently has strongly defended the bilingual education program. Hubbard himself said in 2003 that there was a sacrifice to putting a rush on teaching English because, he said, it caused kids to lose their native language.

"What kind of student do we want to produce in the end?" he asked at the time. "Someone monolingual?"

Vista Unified, which serves the greater Vista area and east Oceanside, was one of the districts that maintained a bilingual program after the passage in 1998 of a statewide initiative that limits the use of languages other than English in public-school classrooms. While basically banning bilingual education, the proposition allowed districts such as Vista Unified with high non-English-speaking enrollments to offer bilingual classes only if students' parents agreed.

Many parents took the district up on the offer, and it was only this year that the district created a policy to sharply curb the waivers that allowed children into the bilingual program.

Trustees met for 30 minutes with each of the district's nearly 30 principals during the last three days to find out how they planned to boost literacy, teach more students to speak English, and reduce the number of children taught in Spanish ---- three of the board's six goals for this year.

The other goals are increasing attendance to 98 percent, cutting down on expulsions by creating an intervention system for students with a large number of disciplinary referrals and looking at whether the district gives too much homework.

On Friday, the school board met with principals from Lake Elementary, Casita Center for Science, Technology and Math and Temple Heights Elementary, among others, with a central theme of how to get Spanish-speaking students to learn English faster.

Board members agreed that the district must wean students off Spanish-language classes and put them in immersion classes where they are taught primarily in English.

Trustee Jim Gibson said that the district does not provide "protection" for students who speak languages other than Spanish.

"(Immersion) has proven to work, bilingual does not work," Gibson said. "My desire is for Spanish speakers to learn English in one year."

Board members applauded Casita Principal Karen Burke for reducing the number of kids taught in bilingual classes from 170 to 34, and increasing the number of kids in immersion classes from zero to 130.

Gibson argued that the district should reduce the number of kids being taught in Spanish to zero immediately. He said bilingual education is "dead."

Other board members said they should reduce Spanish classes gradually to zero. But all four board members bought into the immersion program. Trustee Stephen Guffanti was absent.

Trustee Steve Lilly said the meetings with the principals gave him the confidence that language arts scores on tests this year will be much improved, both with Spanish and English speakers.

"After 11 hours of these meetings, I am really optimistic that we will see language arts scores jump this year, especially at low levels," Lilly said.

Superintendent Dave Cowles the meetings were very constructive and may have helped find a common ground for a divided school board.

"It bonded the board around some educational issues," Cowles said. "It's been the best exercise I've seen to bring the board together to focus on instructional issues in our schools."

He said it was gratifying to see the board be all on one page, and that is was a good trend for the new superintendent who will replace him when he retires Dec. 30.

"It may be a way to give the board a common ground to work on as we begin a new era in the district with a new superintendent," Cowles said.

Contact staff writer Rob O'Dell at (760) 631-6620 or