S.F. seen as model in bilingual education over English only

By Jill Tucker | SF Chronicle

In algebra class, Walter Solórzano (left) first teaches students like eighth-grader
Arturo Gomez in their primary language and then in English as part of the Buena
Vista Horace Mann K-8 school's dual immersion program in San Francisco.
Photo: Lea Suzuki, The Chronicle

In the 15 years since voters essentially banned bilingual education in state schools, teaching English learners to read, write and do arithmetic first in their native language has nearly disappeared from California classrooms.

Since Proposition 227 overwhelmingly passed in June 1998, it's been all about learning English, first and foremost - but not in San Francisco. Nearly 30 percent of the city's 17,000 English learners are in bilingual education programs, compared with 5 percent on average statewide, according to the most recent data available.

And it's working, according to a recently published Stanford University study commissioned by the San Francisco Unified School District.

Districts can get around the Prop. 227 ban by having parents sign a waiver authorizing their children to be in bilingual education programs.

Bilingual education students, who learn to read and write in their native language and then transfer those academic skills into English, are - after a slower start - as fluent by sixth grade as those focused on and immersed in English with minimal support in their home language, according to the study.

Equally proficient

The same results were seen with English learners in dual-immersion programs, which teach native English speakers and non-English speakers first in Spanish, Chinese, Arabic or other languages before phasing English into their studies.

In other words, students ended up equally proficient in English no matter how they learned it in San Francisco schools, the Stanford researchers found.

The difference is that those in dual-immersion and bilingual education programs are taught in those five or six years to speak, read and write in two languages and are more likely to be bilingual.

Despite the state ban, "we haven't actually deterred from our goal of bilingualism," said Christina Wong, San Francisco Unified's special assistant to the superintendent. "We were very pleased, and it really helps justify the investment the district has made over a number of years to this effort."

A bad word

When Prop. 227 passed, "bilingual" was, to many, a bad word.

There was a sense that in bilingual education classrooms, English learners were segregated and languished in native language classrooms, putting them at a significant disadvantage to their English-fluent peers.

Knowing English, supporters said, was critical - even if that meant purging a first language from a student's skill set.

"Bilingual education in California means monolingual instruction, mainly in Spanish," said the measure's author, Ron Unz, during the 1997-98 campaign. "It would be a very good thing if (students) were fluent in two languages, but often they come out illiterate in two languages. I've always been somebody very skeptical of bilingual education."

The initiative passed with 60 percent voter support.
More than 15 years later, the global economy increasingly has placed value on bilingual workers, whether English is their first or second language. That demand in the United States has trickled down into schools, where policymakers are rethinking an English first approach and parents are calling for access to language-immersion programs.

In 2012, several districts in California, including San Francisco, started offering a Seal of Biliteracy for graduating high school seniors to acknowledge their language skills.

Nationally, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said last year that when teaching English to English learners, the primary language should be maintained so they can become bilingual.

"We are really squandering our linguistic resources by not supporting the primary-language instruction," said Sarah Capitelli, a University of San Francisco professor of teacher education. "I feel like it's a huge waste."

Esther Woo started teaching 10 years ago when Prop. 227 and the decline of bilingual education in California was in full swing.

'All about assimilation'

Prop. 227 "was all about assimilation into the dominant culture," said Woo, a fifth-grade Spanish dual-immersion teacher at San Francisco's Buena Vista Horace Mann K-8 school. "I feel now the focus is more student centered rather than policy centered.

"We're creating these successful citizens of the future."

While bilingual education has continued to thrive in San Francisco, parents of English learners are increasingly opting for the dual-immersion programs, which use the child's native language but don't require segregated classrooms.

Currently, San Francisco Unified has more than 5,000 students in dual-immersion programs who started as kindergarteners. Six years later, these middle schoolers are fluent in English and Cantonese, Spanish, Mandarin or Korean.

There is always more demand than seats in the classrooms.

Often, the English-speaking students have a family background in the language being taught, but through one or two generations, it was lost, Woo said. Their parents "wished they would have had that advantage."

While the Stanford study offered a generally positive review of district English-learner programs, with the vast majority of students reaching fluency by the end of middle school, the picture isn't entirely rosy in San Francisco.

The study showed that Chinese English learners reach fluency in greater numbers and faster compared with Spanish speakers, a trend that mirrors an achievement gap in test scores and other academic indicators between white and Asian students and Latino and African American students.

In addition, the graduation rate for English learners in San Francisco is 68 percent, compared with 82 percent districtwide, according to the California Department of Education.

Yet statewide, the graduation rate for English learners is 62 percent.

The Stanford study included about 18,000 English learners in San Francisco schools from 2002 to 2010 and examined their results on the California English Language Development Test as well as the percentage of students who transitioned from English-learner status to full fluency each year.

All told, San Francisco might make a good case for bringing back bilingual education in California, given the results of the study. And research has consistently backed its effectiveness.

"The research is 100 percent solid in bilingual education," said Stephen Krashen, University of Southern California professor emeritus in linguistics. "Students in well-designed bilingual programs outperform comparison students on tests of English reading. Despite the overwhelming evidence, bilingual education is still not well supported."

He blames the bilingual education wars that swayed public opinion in California, Colorado and Massachusetts.

Changing attitudes

Still, there's a shift.

"I think the attitudes have changed," said Shelly Spiegel-Coleman, executive director of Californians Together, a coalition of parents and education civil rights groups.

Yet, so far, there has been little to no political effort to officially rescind Prop. 227 given that districts can get around it with a parent signature.

But would Prop. 227 still pass today?

Spiegel-Coleman said it still might despite the demand for bilingualism.

"I think the vote would be different," Spiegel-Coleman said. "I think it would be closer."