California ballot revives debate on expanding bilingual education

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Students exit a bus as they arrive at Venice High School in Los Angeles, California December 16, 2015. Classes resume today in Los Angeles, the second largest school district in the United States,  after they were closed on Tuesday after officials reported receiving an unspecified threat to the district and ordered a search of all schools in the city. REUTERS/Jonathan Alcorn - RTX1YZF0

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JUDY WOODRUFF: Now let’s turn to an election story at the state level.

There are important ballot initiatives all around the country. Tonight, we look at one of those battles, over bilingual education in California.

More than 9 percent of all students in the United States don’t speak English fluently. They struggle more in school, trailing behind in every academic measure and at every grade. In California, that’s true for nearly one in every four children, or almost 1.5 million kids.

Special correspondent Kavitha Cardoza with our partner Education Week visited California, where voters will soon decide how to best teach these children.

It’s part of our weekly series Making the Grade.

KAVITHA CARDOZA: At a farmers market in San Francisco, signs of multiculturalism are everywhere, a good place to convince citizens to vote in favor of allowing bilingual education in California schools.

SHELLY SPIEGEL-COLEMAN, Executive Director, Californians Together: Hi. We’re here with information about Proposition 58 that’s going to be on the ballot in November. What Proposition 58 will do will really put the decision-making back into the hands of the people closest to the students, the parents and the schools.

KAVITHA CARDOZA: Almost 20 years ago, Californians overwhelmingly voted in favor of doing exactly the opposite, voting for a proposition which required students who didn’t speak English fluently to be taught only in English. Most bilingual programs closed.

A Silicon Valley software developer was the architect of the successful English-only proposition back then. Ron Unz remains opposed today.

You’re not a parent or a teacher or a researcher. How did this become your issue?

RON UNZ, Chairman, English for the Children: Well, I come from a little bit of an immigrant background myself, in that my mother was born in Los Angeles, but grew up not speaking a word of English. She learned English very quickly and easily when she started kindergarten. And that really was the same case with many other people she knew.

KAVITHA CARDOZA: Unz says learning English quickly is key to assimilating in the U.S.

RON UNZ: Bilingual education doesn’t work now. It’s never worked in the past. And despite its advocates’ extremism ideological commitment to that policy, it’s just totally unsuccessful.

KAVITHA CARDOZA: California State Senator Ricardo Lara agrees that learning English is key. He disagrees on how to get there. Among his five siblings, he and his sister did well in an English-only environment. His other three siblings struggled, until they switched to bilingual schools. Then they began to excel academically.

RICARDO LARA (D), California State Senator: Kids learn differently, and we all know that that’s a fact now. So why are we going to have a one cookie-cutter, one-size-fits-all approach to learning English in California, which is one of the most diverse states?

KAVITHA CARDOZA: State senator Lara is sponsoring Proposition 58, which will make it easier for local school districts to expand bilingual education.

He says it’s part of a broader cultural shift in the past 20 years. Globalization has made knowing more than one language a benefit, rather than a burden.

Adelante Spanish Immersion School saw the benefit 20 years ago. They managed to keep their bilingual programs intact. Principal Christine Hiltbrand says much of the demand is being driven by middle-class, educated parents.

CHRISTINE HILTBRAND, Principal, Adelante Spanish Immersion School: We had about 100 kids on the wait-list. And the district, because of that popularity, has opened a second Spanish immersion school. And that’s full, too.

KAVITHA CARDOZA: Their method is called dual-language immersion. Half the student body speaks English at home, half speak Spanish. In early years, children here spend most of their time learning all their subjects in Spanish. Gradually more classes are taught in English, until the fourth grade, when they spend exactly half the time in each language.

Learning a second language was hard at first, but Arianna Baca says it gets easier.

ARIANNA BACA, 5th Grade Student: And then I’m like, oh, so now it’s English time, and now I speak in English. And my brain just switches off.

KAVITHA CARDOZA: Children say knowing two languages is useful, even beyond school.

ANDREW TINSON, 5th Grade Student: Sometimes, I use Spanish when I go to, like, a market because, sometimes people at the market, they speak Spanish. And, also, I went to Spain, and so everybody there speaks Spanish, so it was very useful.

MARVIN GARRIDO, 5th Grade Student: My mom works cleaning houses, and sometimes she wants to, like, send messages to her boss to clean the house. Sometimes, she wants me to help her to put what to say and stuff like that.

KAVITHA CARDOZA: Laurie Olsen is a bilingual advocate.

LAURIE OLSEN, Bilingual Education Advocate: Proficiency in two or more languages is important. It’s a skill. It’s a high-level skill. We as a society need people who can be the firefighters and the service providers and the doctors and the diplomats that have the ability to speak across languages and communities.

KAVITHA CARDOZA: There’s a broad coalition in favor of giving school districts the option of bilingual education. But critics like Ron Unz remain unconvinced.

RON UNZ: And I think it would be very ridiculous for the state to consider moving back to the old Spanish almost-only system, or so-called bilingual education.

KAVITHA CARDOZA: He points out, after the English-only proposition passed, test scores went up.

But that’s only half the story. Though there was an initial bump, when researchers followed these children over time, they found, by middle school, those in English-only classes struggled, because it’s hard to keep up with, say, history or science if you don’t fully understand what’s being said. Only those in bilingual classes continued to do well in school.

How does Adelante stack up? Student scores are seven points higher in reading than the state average, and 13 points higher in math. And by fifth grade, children are fully bilingual.

Patricia Gandara is a researcher with the University of California Los Angeles.

PATRICIA GANDARA, University of California Los Angeles: Because we now know definitively that there are huge advantages, advantages in employment, advantages — social advantages, psychological advantages. There are — and cognitive advantages.

It just seems to me to be such a shame that we are an immigrant country. We are blessed with this richness of languages. And to not take advantage of that, to not let our kids have that opportunity seems to me just a tremendous waste, a tremendous waste of resources.

KAVITHA CARDOZA: Recent polling in California suggests voters support more bilingual programs. Spiegel-Coleman says, 20 years ago, attitudes were different.

SHELLY SPIEGEL-COLEMAN: We would’ve gotten dirty looks. We would’ve been insulted. People would have said things to us like, that’s the Spanish-only program, they should be learning English.

We didn’t get any of that today.

KAVITHA CARDOZA: She’s hoping those changed attitudes will translate into votes this November.

For the “PBS NewsHour” and Education Week, I’m Kavitha Cardoza reporting from San Francisco.

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