Innovation in the Schools

July 07, 1986

American students rarely become fluent in a foreign language. Nationally, only 15% of high-school students even study a second language. The Los Angeles Unified School District requires students to take a foreign language for one year, barely an introduction. Students can bypass that requirement if they study fine arts for a year.

The Los Angeles Board of Education, therefore, is on the right track with a new voluntary program that will help English-speaking students become fluent in Spanish.

Board member Alan Gershman suggested the pilot program. He also suggested basing it in one school that would be reopened in Bel Air. Board member Jackie Greenberg suggested basing the program in one classroom at 10 elementary schools, which would be a more equitable strategy.

The program, modeled on the San Diego Unified School District's successful bilingual/immersion program, would permit English-speaking and Spanish-speaking elementary youngsters to learn primarily in Spanish.

The amount of English gradually increases. At the three participating schools in San Diego, 80% of the kindergarten classwork is taught in Spanish and 50% of the fourth-grade material is taught in English.

Both groups of children benefit academically. On achievement tests they perform as well as or better than students who learn in more traditional settings. They also benefit from the intense language instruction at the early levels. The English-speaking children develop a native-like fluency in a second language. The Spanish-speaking children develop a solid base of knowledge and skills that, according to some experts, transfer more readily into English. The students also benefit socially as they learn together.

The San Diego program has worked for 10 years. Culver City has a similar immersion program for English-speaking students. Santa Monica has planned a program for September.

Los Angeles can also benefit. One-fourth of the district's students, 145,000 children, know only limited English. They speak 86 languages. The majority, easily 90%, speak Spanish. The next largest language minority is Korean, followed by Cantonese, Filipino and Armenian.

English, the language of our culture, is, without challenge, the language that every child needs to succeed in this country. Proficiency in two languages can enhance that success as the nation and the state reach out longingly to foreign markets and as the region becomes even more international in flavor and population.

The bilingual/immersion program, supported by the Los Angeles Board of Education, responds, innovatively, to a growing need.

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