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Ventura County Perspective | A CONVERSATION

The Unz Initiative

When the Subject Is Teaching English in Public Schools, the Debate Ranges Far and Wide

March 29, 1998

In Ventura County, by one estimate, about one in five students speaks no English or has limited proficiency. The percentage has increased sharply in the past decade, for a current total of about 25,000 limited-English-proficiency students in the county.

Although most people agree that these students urgently need to acquire English language skills, there is little agreement about how to teach them.

Proposition 227, the "English for the Children" or Unz initiative, drafted by Silicon Valley software entrepreneur Ron K. Unz, seeks to dismantle bilingual education by requiring that virtually all public school classroom instruction be in English. The measure will be on the June 2 ballot.

Times articles editor SARAH HOLEMAN spoke recently with three community members about the Unz initiative and the effects it could have on the Ventura Unified School District: Steve Frank, a Simi Valley resident and government affairs consultant, is spearheading the Ventura County campaign in support of the initiative; Jennifer Robles is the bilingual program specialist for the Ventura Unified School District; and Cliff Rodrigues is president of El Concilio del Condado de Ventura and a member of the Ventura Unified board of education.

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Times: If the Unz initiative passes, how would this change the teaching of English in Ventura County public schools?

Steve Frank: I think the first change would be that instead of the education community making the decision, that parents would make the decision as to what is best for their child, and that's very important. In East L.A. last year, several hundred parents, all Spanish-speaking, walked out of the elementary school and boycotted it for two weeks, until they were able to get their children into English-speaking classes. In the South they segregated kids by color. In California we segregate children by language. And just as children in the South weren't able to get a good education because of this and succeed in life, kids in California aren't able to succeed. The best example of that is the fact that approximately 40% of Hispanic children in California drop out of school, and that has a great deal to do with the fact that they aren't learning English, they aren't learning the lessons of life, and therefore they're not seeing any benefit to being in school. The kids--as well as the parents--know that to succeed in the United States, you have to speak English. And the government schools are failing to teach kids English.

Cliff Rodrigues: If this initiative does pass, in many cases there will be a dramatic change. Many of our kids in Ventura County, and the rest of California, are now getting instruction in the language they understand. They're getting the content of core curriculum in a language they understand, and at the same time, English is being taught to them in an organized, sequential, developmental manner. In a given period of time--three, four years--they are able to make that transition [out of bilingual education]. If this initiative does pass, we're going to have kids in a classroom for one year, learning English, and then they're going to be mixed, at various age levels, into one classroom. Learning is going to become very difficult.

Jennifer Robles: The first thing that comes to my mind, after spending many hours reviewing the Unz initiative, is that we would be moving away from the method for teaching English to speakers of other languages that is recognized by state groups and national groups to be the most effective. . . . Right now we have programs that give parents the opportunity to choose the program they would like as they enroll their children in school. The Unz initiative says, "You don't have a choice, parents. For the first month we'll tell you how we're going to do it. At the end of that month we will give you an option to make a change, if there are 20 or more of you who have the same idea, at one grade level, at your school." In Ventura Unified, our principals are wondering, "How are we going to accommodate this," if it should happen.

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