Noe Valley Voice July-August 1998

Schools Brace for Bilingual Shakeup

By Denise Minor

With the passage of Proposition 227 in the June 2 election, many parents are worried about the three popular Spanish immersion programs in Noe Valley public schools.

"We fought really hard to get our kids in the immersion program," said Charles Hill of 26th Street, who went through a five-month appeals process to get his 6-year-old twins into Alvarado.

"It seems to me that all the families of both the Spanish and English speaking kids are very happy to be there," said Hill. "It would be absolutely terrible if it were destroyed because of this initiative."

The state law, which passed by 61 to 37 percent, calls for reducing bilingual education to only one year of English immersion for new students, who must then mainstream into English-only classes.

The San Francisco School Board and Superintendent Bill Rojas have stated that they oppose implementation of Prop. 227 and support legal challenges by numerous groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), to strike down the law.

If, however, Prop. 227 is upheld by the courts, some analysts have interpreted it as a mandate to also end foreign-language immersion programs in public schools, such as the Spanish classes at Alvarado and Fairmount elementary schools and at James Lick Middle School on Noe Street.

But word from administrators at all three schools is -- don't worry. At least not yet.

"The district has told us to stick to the course," said James Lick Principal Michael Eddings. "That is what we will do."

"We are continuing just as before," said Linda Luevano, principal of Fairmount Elementary on Chenery Street. "I have all of these neighborhood families who have committed to coming here because of our Spanish immersion program. I'm not going to let them down."

Fairmount Big on 'Biliteracy'

In fact, Fairmount is actually increasing its role this summer as a leader in bilingual and immersion education by hosting an intensive training program for 50 teachers from throughout the city.

The University of California at Berkeley Graduate School of Education chose Fairmount as the site for its seventh annual summer biliteracy training program called Arboles (trees in Spanish). This is the first time the program has been conducted on a school campus rather than at the university.

Fairmount first-grade teacher Erminda Garcia and her husband, Eugene Garcia, dean of Berkeley's School of Education, are in charge of the program, which instructs teachers in the newest methods of working with two or more languages in the classroom.

"The basis of this approach is that we must build around what the kids bring to the classroom, such as different languages, cultures, or home experiences," said Garcia.

For example, she explained, a teacher could read a story in Spanish, then say to the Spanish-speaking students, "Please make sure your friends understand what has happened in this story."

The next day she would read a different book in English and ask the English-speaking students to explain the stories to their classmates who didn't understand.

"You begin with showing respect for whatever it is some students know, and show them that they can teach others as well," said Garcia.

The same approach can be used with science, she continued. Instead of beginning a lesson about dinosaurs with a lecture on the basics, a teacher would ask students what they know about the creatures. There will invariably be one or two students who know quite a bit, and their ideas will be developed further. "Instead of starting down here," Garcia said, placing her hand at waist level, "they start up here." She lifted her hand above her head. "They begin with the interesting points brought up by their classmates."

The flow from English into Spanish and back again is not determined by a clock, but by the teacher, who is constantly making choices about what works best for her students and what challenges they are ready to accept.

Language immersion programs differ from the bilingual ones in that children are taught strictly in the target language for part of the day, then in English the rest of the day.

Buena Vista School teacher Veronica Chavez, who is teaching at Fairmount this summer, said that a typical kindergarten Spanish immersion class is taught 90 percent in Spanish. That percentage reduces slightly each year until the fourth grade, when classes are taught half in English and half in Spanish. The goal is for all students to be bilingual and biliterate by the end of the fifth grade.

James Lick To Offer Journalism

James Lick Principal Michael Eddings said that students in his sixth, seventh, and eighth grade Spanish immersion programs spend about half of their day learning in Spanish. Depending upon the grade level, students might receive language, art, and social studies in Spanish, then math and science in English. Or they might get math and science in Spanish and the other courses in English.

This fall, James Lick Spanish immersion teacher Jose Montaño will offer a new program to his eighth-grade students: a journalism course. Montaño hopes to publish the students' work in both English and Spanish.

Immersion programs, according to Fairmount's Garcia, usually have the greatest success in teaching children a new language. But that is partly due to the type of parents who put their children in immersion programs, she said. They are typically very literate, spend time on homework with their children, and are aggressive about getting their children the best education possible.

"Immersion works best," she said. "But of course, you must look at the community of learners. Buena Vista and Alvarado are beating the drums and getting all the right people involved.

"Some children come from homes where literacy is not valued, where they don't read books, where parents are just too exhausted from work -- or life -- to spend time on schoolwork," said Garcia.

Those children might not do so well in an immersion program. They might fare better in the kind of biliteracy class championed by Garcia.

Many of her techniques are also effective in an immersion classroom. "Erminda is one of the most talented teachers I've seen in my life," said Principal Luevano. "Her delivery model could be very helpful to any teacher."

But all the hoopla over the immersion classes as opposed to the bilingual classes is missing the point, she said.

"The goal is the same -- bilingualism," said Luevano. "With immersion, you introduce the target language first. With biliteracy and bilingualism, you start with the home language. By fifth grade, you want all the kids to be there, working at grade level."

Will Alvarado Immersion Be Sunk?

Alvarado Principal Phyllis Matsuno has heard conflicting reports about what Prop. 227 might do to the non-English immersion programs -- such as those in Spanish, Chinese, Japanese, and Korean -- offered in San Francisco public schools.

The initiative's author, Ron Unz, has publicly said that immersion classes will not be affected. But sections of the initiative state that any child enrolled in school who does not speak English must be placed in an English immersion classroom for one year, then mainstreamed into regular classes.

In most immersion programs, such as the one at Alvarado, about half of the students are native speakers of the target language. There is considerable disagreement as to whether the initiative would allow native Spanish speakers to participate in a Spanish immersion program, or would force them into English-only classes.

"If that is the case, that only children who do not speak Spanish can enroll in a Spanish immersion program, it would be a terrible shame," said Matsuno.

The interaction between the Spanish- and English-speaking children in the same class is fundamental to both groups learning both languages, she said.

Hill said he sees the native Spanish-speaking children in his twins' class advancing quickly. "What do you think they speak at lunch and recess? English. They're learning English from the kids of Noe Valley. Then during class, the neighborhood kids learn Spanish from them."

He said he has been extremely frustrated over Prop. 227. "It is absurd that this billionaire from Silicon Valley who has no children can step in and dictate what language our kids can speak in the classroom."

California needs to take advantage of the resource it has in children who speak so many languages, he said, instead of dictating English-only in the schools.

"I think it is incredibly important for kids to speak at least two languages," said Hill. "I looked at a number of private schools for my kids, but they were weak in the area of foreign languages as compared to what the public schools offer."

Initially, Hill's children were turned down from the Spanish immersion programs at both Buena Vista School (formerly in Noe Valley but now on 25th Street at the foot of Potrero Hill) and Alvarado School on Douglass.

He and his wife launched a five-month appeal that involved dozens of phone calls to the district and "a stack of letters three inches high." They eventually won.

"I went to law school," said Hill. "The law school application process paled in comparison to the process of getting my kids into the Spanish immersion program at Alvarado."

He thinks that dismantling the popular language immersion programs is a step backwards. "There's a huge waiting list. People are clamoring to get their kids into immersion programs," said Hill. "What we need are more of them, not less."