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Bilingual Teaching in the Schools Hailed by Some, Assailed by Others

August 06, 1988|HERMAN WONG | Times Staff Writer

For more than a decade, bilingual education programs have been hailed by many as the most effective way to teach the mounting numbers of non-English-speaking children. These programs start off teaching the children in their native languages--such as Spanish or Vietnamese--and then expose them in varying degrees to English instruction.

The aim is to make them "fully proficient" in English within five years--the norm, supporters say, is around three--and without any of these children slipping academically behind those in regular all-English classes.

The catalyst was federal guidelines issued in the early 1970s and bolstered by a U.S. Supreme Court ruling. The mandate: Students who spoke little or no English should be receiving education of equal quality.

But the two-language method has come under heavy fire in recent years--in California reaching a fever pitch in early 1987.

Proposition 63 had just been overwhelmingly approved by state voters. The initiative ballot measure--its major sponsor was U.S. English, a nationwide organization critical of bilingual education--declared that English was the state's "official language" and that it was to be "preserved and enhanced."

At the same time, a state law on bilingual education expired. The law, which prescribed student ratios, teacher staffing and other standards, was far more stringent than federal guidelines. A bill sponsored by Speaker Willie Brown (D-San Francisco) to extend the program was vetoed by Gov. George Deukmejian, who said local districts should have greater control over such programs.

Although one legislative effort to revive the original bilingual program failed last spring, program advocates were making a new attempt. A proposed restoration of the program is in a Democratic-backed amendment to an Assembly education bill, which is still in the committee hearing stage.

The most outspoken opponents of the traditional bilingual programs claimed these classes worked against linguistic assimilation. They argued that the programs had the opposite effect--an over-reliance on non-English languages and perpetuation of "language segregation."

With these attacks in mind, backers of the traditional programs feared a wholesale dismantling of two-language instruction and the rapid increase of all-English "total immersion" programs.

But, as these backers now tell it, sweeping cuts have yet to take place.

"This hasn't happened, we believe, because the (standard) bilingual programs have proven their worth. There is still a tremendous need for this kind of instruction," said Shelly Spiegel-Coleman, a Los Angeles County education consultant and past president of the California Assn. for Bilingual Education.

The returns aren't all in yet, since many districts are still reevaluating their programs in the wake of the expired state law.

In Orange County, this is best represented by the Santa Ana Unified School District, the county's largest. The district had a 1987-88 enrollment of about 38,200. It reported by far the most ethnic-minority students--75% Latino and 10% Asian--and the most "limited English" students, 52%.

(Countywide, there were nearly 50,000 "limited English" students among an overall 1987 enrollment of about 343,000, according to a county Department of Education survey.)

Santa Ana now plans to reduce the number of standard two-language classes from 450 to 287, and to increase those that offer extensive English instruction from 50 to 199.

A key reason for the proposed changes, program director Betty Poggi said, is to recognize that Santa Ana, like most other districts, doesn't have enough certified bilingual teachers to go around. And nearly all of these are only for the Spanish-speaking.

Otherwise, Poggi added, the traditional bilingual concept has survived and "basically remains intact."

Some critics see the trend differently. "For years, the swing has been toward the standard bilingual approach," said one major opponent, Gloria Tuchman, a Santa Ana teacher who has served on the federally appointed National Advisory Council for Bilingual Education.

"But now," added Tuchman, who is also a Tustin Unified School District board member, "the trend is going the other way--toward the (English-instruction) options that, we believe, work better and faster."

Such options have long been used by Santa Ana and other districts under such names as "English as a Second Language," "shelter English" or "English immersion." Basically, these offer a continuum of English instruction--from partial exposure to total "sink or swim" classes.

The traditional bilingual programs haven't worked with most students, Tuchman contends. "You had students who stayed too long in these classrooms (that relied primarily on a non-English language)," she said.

In these cases, "we believe it (all-English placement) could be done in one year, not three or five," added Tuchman, who teaches English as a Second Language classes (taught predominantly in English) in Santa Ana.

Tuchman, who is an active member of U.S. English, pointed out that members of this organization--which was founded by former U.S. Sen. S.I. Hayakawa (R-Cal)--have had their share of attacks. U.S. English opposes the use of bilingual ballots and similar linguistic practices by public agencies.

"We have been called all sorts of names--'xenophobic' and 'racist,' " she said.

Yet, added Tuchman, who is Mexican-American, "we, too, are all for preserving the native cultures and languages of these families. We're not an 'English-only' group, like some people keep claiming.

"All we're saying is that English is the common thread of all of us in this country and that these families should be given the best--and swiftest--avenue to true (language) assimilation."

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