It's hard to be single, non-bilingual

17th October 1997 at 01:00
Tim Cornwell reports from the Californian state school where nearly all the pupils speak Spanish.

In Sean and Alejandro, a major political problem is writ small. The two are playing a kind of primitive bingo in their first-grade class at Finley elementary, a learning tool for basic maths with dice, counters, and board. "Your turn," says Sean. "My turn," says Alejandro. "One, two, three I" Sean, a blond-haired boy with a buzz cut, is the only "EO" in the class of 18 - that's English only. In a culture fond of acronyms, even in its schools, Alejandro is a LEP - limited English proficient student - who joined the class only two weeks ago when his family moved back from Mexico.

Apart from Sean, every student in the room at this California state school speaks Spanish. Fifteen are LEP, though their English skills run from near fluency to just a few words. But teacher Don Craig is leading the class entirely in English, and not a Spanish word is in sight on the posters and wall charts.

Bilingual education has been the norm in California for 20 years. The aim has always been to teach every child English. But in the name of "equal opportunity through academic achievement", state schools are required by law to provide, when necessary, "academic instruction through the primary language", particularly in subjects such as social studies and mathematics.

A revolt of sorts is now under way. Conservatives suspicious of multi-culturalism have raised the English-only banner, joined by some immigrant parents who demand English for their children. In practical terms, it is argued, there are simply not enough qualified bilingual teachers to go around.

About a quarter of the five million students enrolled in Californian public schools are not fluent in English. But the state has less than half the estimated 34,000 bilingual staff it needs.

The result is that a sound principle, that young children learn in their own language while they merge into mainstream English classes, is not working in practice, critics say. Children get stuck in bilingual education and don't move out, they claim, while native English speakers are held back.

Next year, Californians will vote on a proposal that would end bilingual education in the state. There are passionate arguments on both sides.

Mexican-American advocacy groups are campaigning against it, along with bilingual teachers who have sometimes spent years in language training, and could risk losing salary bonuses. Teachers' unions are thought likely to join the opposition.

Six weeks ago a judge blocked a school district in Orange County, traditionally the territory of California's conservatives, from pursuing an English-only policy. There were "significant questions" about whether the rights of non-English speaking children were being safeguarded, he said, granting an injunction to a group of Spanish-speaking parents.

Finley school is in the neighbouring Westminister School District, with just 9,300 students, all in elementary and middle schools. Here, the district has been trying to forge an alternative route, without stoking the political fires. While lessons are conducted in English, bilingual teachers' aides work with children who do not understand.

Ethnically, Westminster is a California quilt. It includes Little Saigon, home to the biggest Vietnamese community in the world outside Vietnam, where new immigrants are still joining families who fled in the aftermath of the Vietnam War. But it also draws many Latin American emigres.

In the schools, about one-third of the pupils are Latino, one-third Vietnamese, and one-third Caucasian. The school population also runs to Chinese, Cambodians, Hmong, and Pacific Islanders. Among the Spanish speakers, there are several different dialects, from Mexico or Peru. More than 90 per cent of the children qualify for free school lunches - a measure of their parents' low income - and many have had little formal education.

While Mr Craig reads to his class from a book, and later makes them recite it back - "I know the Droo that's in the zooHe's very nice, he's very blue" - teacher's aide Valentina Mestroni helps Spanish speakers from the back. When he asks questions in English, she quietly translates, and prompts them to answer in English.

Across the way, in a kindergarten class that is mostly Vietnamese, the pattern is the same. An English-speaking teacher, with a Vietnamese assistant, is teaching the colour orange, and in the process introducing children to pumpkins and Hallowe'en.

Sometimes the children know the answer, but they need reassurance from her, said Ms Mestroni. "I think it gives them confidence," she said. There is heavy emphasis on a non-stress environment, where children must not be intimidated by their uncertainty. They are not, for example, forbidden to talk among themselves in Spanish.

This month, Westminister will go back to the state of California for a waiver of existing laws to allow it to continue the English instruction. The district claims test scores are already improving across the board, evidence that the system is working.

"It's total immersion, with support," said Mr Craig, who has been trained in teaching "sheltered" English where new words are backed by hand gestures and pictures. "It works better than 99 per cent of the bilingual programmes out there. If you are going to teach children to read and write, it might as well be in the language they are going to learn in."

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