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2-Way Street for Bilingual Education

San Bernardino schools' two-language goal starts with kindergartners. Critics say 'dual immersion' is an end run around Prop. 227.

October 20, 2003|Kristina Sauerwein | Times Staff Writer

Dequwan Wells' family tells him that being bilingual will help him get a good job one day.

But the 7-year-old has his own motive for wanting to learn Spanish along with his native English.

"I can have more friends if I can talk two languages," the first-grader said, playing with a Spanish-speaking classmate during recess at Lincoln Elementary School in San Bernardino.

San Bernardino is encouraging residents to become fluent in two languages, a goal made official last year when officials declared San Bernardino a bilingual city, and the local school district has followed their lead.

"To be successful in the 21st century, a person can no longer know just one language," said Delfina Lopez Bryant, director of the district's English Learners and Support Program, which coordinates professional development, parent training and classroom content for non-English- speaking students.

At Lincoln, one of the city's largest elementary schools, students of all backgrounds can learn English and Spanish as part of the San Bernardino Unified School District's dual-immersion program. Starting in kindergarten, it mixes native speakers of both languages in the same classroom so children can help each other reach fluency.

Critics call dual immersion, practiced by 148 schools statewide, a veiled version of traditional bilingual education, which California voters barred under Proposition 227. The 1998 initiative mandated English instruction and sharply limited bilingual education.

About 320 of the district's 57,000 students participate in the voluntary program, with half of the students native English speakers. School officials hope to offer the opportunity to all students within 10 years.

Districts in Los Angeles, Santa Ana and the Bay Area offer similar programs for languages including Korean, Spanish, Chinese and Japanese.

Statewide, the San Bernardino school system "is a leader in these types of programs," said Marcia Vargas, director of the "two-way," or dual immersion, program for the California Assn. for Bilingual Education. Part of its uniqueness, educators say, is a shared commitment to bilingualism by city and school leaders.

Declaring San Bernardino a bilingual city was "not a matter of it being the nice thing to do," Mayor Judith Valles said. "It's not a matter of being tolerant. It's a matter of being smart and business savvy" in a global economy.

Besides, Valles said, many of California's cities already serve Spanish and English speakers. Nearly half of San Bernardino's population is Latino, according to the 2000 census.

"It's an important part of our identity," she said. "It's here, and we need to recognize it."

It isn't only the students learning a second language. Beginning Tuesday, San Bernardino will offer Spanish classes to the city's public-service employees.

However, studies show that young children have an easier time than adults in grasping a new language.

At Lincoln, where 40% of the 1,400 students are native Spanish speakers, Anna Vasquez teaches first-graders Spanish in the morning and English in the afternoon. Her classroom is decorated in bright posters with dual language phrases such as "Reading Is Power" and "Leer Es Poder."

Through song, stories and sketches, students learn that "campana" means "bell" and "coche" is "car." The boys and girls have language buddies whom they ask for help.

"They like to help each other learn," said Ana Applegate, a vice principal at Lincoln who oversees dual immersion and other academic programs. "They also learn to appreciate each other's culture."

Ron Unz, who coauthored the 1998 initiative eliminating bilingual education except for students whose parents sign waivers, said he is concerned that the English-speaking students in dual-immersion learn less than their classmates in English-only classes.

"I don't see the benefit," said Unz, the millionaire owner of a Silicon Valley software company.

Under traditional bilingual education, students learn academics in their native language while also studying English. Once they learn enough English, they gradually move into mainstream classes.

That was banned in favor of immersing nonnative speakers in English-only classes.

Unz and other critics pointed out that under dual immersion, kindergartners learn 90% of their lessons in Spanish. In first grade, that percentage decreases to 80.

"It sounds like bilingual education," Unz said, "with a different name."

By the fourth grade, dual-immersion students receive half of their instruction in each language, said Erin Bostick Mason, dual-immersion coordinator for San Bernardino County schools. Most students are biliterate by fifth or sixth grade.

In the beginning, the program emphasizes Spanish, or the minority language, because studies have found that nonnative speakers are able to build a foundation for a new language. Similarly, English speakers, who continue to learn the dominant language in their everyday lives, are able to absorb a new language.

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