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Bilingual Education: Teaching It Faster and Smarter : Latino parents' school boycott fuels a debate on language

February 18, 1996

A number of Latino parents have pulled their children out of the Ninth Street School because they want them to learn English. Now. Not next year or the year 2000. And not in classes taught mainly in Spanish. Their boycott has focused more attention on a growing political debate over bilingual education: how best to teach students who do not speak fluent English when they enroll in school.

The Los Angeles Unified School District's federally mandated bilingual program teaches children in their first language and gradually introduces instruction in English. The program is nationally acclaimed, but some parents complain that the transition to English is too slow and that their children are stuck for years in bilingual education. Most district educators believe, correctly, that non-English-speaking children do better in the long run if they start their education in bilingual classes. Though parents of nonfluent children can choose to put them in classes taught in English, few do so, on the advice of the children's teachers.

Educators at Ninth Street, a LEARN school, redesigned the bilingual education program last year in an effort to assign students to predominantly English-language classes by the third grade. That goal is more ambitious than the district's five-year target.

Meanwhile, Sacramento is poised to address the controversy. Several bills are pending before the Assembly. The issue reaches across California, which has 1.2 million students with limited English ability, and schools spend $400 million on them each year.

Nearly half of the 649,000 students enrolled in the L.A. Unified School District fall into the limited-English category. Most speak Spanish, although about 9% speak one of the more than 80 other languages found in the district. A high transiency rate among students, a high illiteracy rate among some parents and widespread poverty pose additional educational challenges. Recent teenage immigrants with no history of formal education in their native countries offer still another difficult challenge. How can the school district meet all these needs--and the demands of those parents who are justifiably impatient with the pace at which their children are learning English?

The goal of bilingual education is long-term academic achievement. The test is not only how well these children speak English but how well they score academically as they advance through elementary, junior high and high school. Learning a second language is easiest under the age of 10, especially if the new language is introduced when the child is a baby. Social conversation can be achieved in two years or less. Reading, writing and abstract thinking take much longer, though children of highly educated, affluent parents tend to gain fluency quickly.

According to a national study released this month, most children would excel in dual immersion classes, in which two languages are used equally for English-speaking and non-English-speaking children, who learn from each other in the same classroom. Although fluency may require seven to 10 years, by the time students in these two-way classes reach the fourth grade they are doing better than English speakers who are in English-only classes. Unfortunately, this approach is expensive and thus rare.

The English immersion method forces students of other language backgrounds to think at the level of a 3-year-old, specialists say. Though they learn English quickly, studies indicate their performance drops below grade level at about the seventh grade. This sink-or-swim method doomed many Latino students before Congress passed the Bilingual Education Act of 1968, which prohibits discrimination based on the limited ability of a student to use English, and before the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously ruled in 1974 that depriving non-English-speaking children of special help in learning English could violate their civil rights.

Teaching a non-English-speaking child first in his or her native language allows the student to learn fundamentals in academic subjects. Researchers believe that a student literate in his or her first language becomes literate more quickly in a second language. Achieving grade-level academic proficiency using this method optimally takes about five years in the LAUSD. Can't that goal be shortened to three years, the federal recommendation, without shortchanging students?

The high exit rate from bilingual classes into English classes at Wilmington Park Elementary School indicates that this goal is within reach and that many children could make the transition even quicker. Progress is also notable at Nimitz Middle School in Huntington Park. First-rate principals and teachers are the key to these successes. However, the quality of bilingual programs is uneven throughout the district and varies dramatically from campus to campus.

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