State educators hear defense of bilingual programs
Houston Chronicle
Feb. 10, 2006

AUSTIN Bilingual programs do a better job preparing students for academic success than do English-immersion programs, educators from Houston and around the state said today.

More than 20 proponents of bilingual education vigorously defended the programs before the State Board of Education, which had invited two speakers to discuss English immersion programs.

Noelia Garza, director of multilingual programs for HISD, said the district has 39,000 students in bilingual classes and 17,000 in English as a Second Language programs. She said the district tried English immersion in the 1980s but had "very negative results with excessive failures, lots of retentions and excessive special education referrals."

Bilingual programs were restructured in the mid-1990s. Students in the programs often exceed district passing rates on state standardized tests, Garza said.

"Our school board really thinks that the bilingual programs are working because they are helping the district's scores. The gap is being reversed," she said.

Mary Urelius, curriculum director for the Oceanside, Calif., school district, said the district has had success with structured English immersion, which was mandated by California voters in 1998. Nearly one-third of the 20,000 students are English learners in the district, located north of San Diego.

Urelius said students are taught nearly entirely in English, with their native language used only for clarification. She said teacher training and parental support have contributed to the program's success.

In traditional bilingual classes, students are taught in their native languages while learning English. Supporters of this approach said it allows students to become literate in two languages.

Don Soifer, vice president of the Lexington Institute, a public-policy think tank based in Arlington, Va., said California has seen steady, strong gains in English proficiency for the past three years despite uneven implementation of immersion programs.

But he agreed that Texas students with limited English skills outperform their counterparts in other states with large populations of English language learners.

janet.elliott@chron.com