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COUNTY REPORT: The Bilingual Divide

Rise in Non-English Speakers Challenges Schools, Lawmakers

Education: Which teaching method is best for the students remains a matter of opinion.


On this much there is no debate: Every fifth student in a Ventura County classroom speaks little or no English. Fueled by immigration and an overall growth in public school enrollment, their numbers are exploding, growing 150% to more than 25,000 over the last decade.

Yet educators, parents and lawmakers--embroiled in a decades-long debate--are irrevocably split on how best to teach these students. They are equally divided on how best to prepare for the changing complexion of Ventura County classrooms as the ranks of non-English speaking students continue to swell.

Should students with limited English skills be taught only in English, as happens in Thousand Oaks classrooms, known as the "immersion" process? Or should the students learn the basics in their home language for three to five years before being weaned into English, the so-called "late-exit" method favored by many west county campuses?

And are the multimillion-dollar programs achieving results? Or are they merely keeping 600 bilingual teachers in jobs?

With the ranks of students who speak little if any English growing faster in Ventura County than in the state as a whole, educators have been prodded to reexamine their approaches to bilingual education. They aren't alone. Parents and lawmakers are giving the topic a long, hard look.

Some don't like what they see. Countywide, about half of the limited English speaking pupils--94% of whom speak Spanish--get their first few years of instruction in their home language. Three in 10 are immersed in English-only classes, with special booster classes to accelerate their language development. About 14% receive no special attention at all.

Answers are elusive in the long-simmering bilingual education debate--tinged with discussions of race, class and immigration, the entrenched educational establishment and politics, money and unvarnished emotion.

"Why is it so emotional?" asked bilingual educator Steve Lopez, a science teacher at Santa Paula Union High School. "Because people don't have enough good, hard data, so they become fanatics. Instead of using their brains, they use their hearts, emotions. And there are problems, yes. There are also successes."

Among bilingual education's shortcomings, critics say, are a lack of student performance data and accountability for districts that fail to simultaneously teach English and the basic curriculum to non-fluent students.

Trouble is, no one knows which approach--English "immersion" or "late-exit" bilingual--works best for children. Research on the subject is conflicting. The most comprehensive study on the subject, from George Mason University in Virginia, supports late-exit or double-immersion programs, where English-speaking students learn Spanish and Spanish-speakers learn English in one classroom.


Nor do state guidelines require school districts to track performance of students whose first language is not English. As a result, few school officials can say definitively how their limited English speakers are progressing, how many eventually become fluent in English, how they perform on standardized tests as compared to English-speaking peers, whether they graduate from high school or go on to college.

"We're always in a defensive mode about the program," said Cliff Rodrigues, director of bilingual education for the Ventura County superintendent of schools office. "We've been so taken up in the battle to make sure the program is going to happen that we don't do that one little piece [assessment] that we should . . . That we need to do, there's no doubt about it."

Gathering Statistics

To counter criticisms, Ventura County bilingual educators have begun to arm themselves with statistics to fend off unwanted changes to state law.

Supporters of bilingual programs point to the 1996 George Mason study, which traced the long-term academic success of thousands of students and concluded that those taught first in their native language perform better academically than those immersed quickly in English.

The study, which is the most comprehensive look at bilingual programs nationwide, found two-way immersion programs where English speaking and foreign language speaking students sit side-by-side, learning each other's languages, are the most successful. But, they are also the least common.

Only last year, Ventura Unified School District compiled a study similar to the George Mason University report to see if its approach to bilingual education was working.

The study looked at the progress of 60 bilingual education students from kindergarten through high school. The results were mainly positive, said Jennifer Robles, the district's bilingual education specialist. By fifth grade, 80% of the children had mastered oral English. Their academics were up to par by sixth grade.

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