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Bill would mandate foreign language fluency for state students

San Francisco Chronicle
March 13, 2003
Jennifer Coleman

California students would be required to master a second language before graduating from high school under a bill introduced Thursday in the state Legislature.

The bill is part of an ambitious proposal to restructure California's education bureaucracy, set rigorous academic goals for students and higher standards for teachers.

Written by Sen. John Vasconcellos, the second language bill includes the 20-year goal of graduating students speak more than one language fluently.

"They do it in Europe. They do it in Asia. I don't know why we can't do it," said Sen. Betty Karnette, D-Long Beach. "The more languages you learn, the more powerful you become."

There are a handful of dual language immersion schools in California that do produce students who speak a second language, said Sen. Dede Alpert, D-Coronado.

Expanding that to a statewide mandate "is something we would roll out gradually," she said.

Other aspects of Vasconcellos' bill include:

* Creating a transfer associates degree that would coordinate general education requirements at California's community colleges and the California State University and University of California systems.

* Give school districts the authority to give more resources to principals at low-performing schools.

* Direct state education officials to outline a curriculum for preschool and early childhood education.

Details of the foreign language requirement, and the other components, will be worked out in legislative committees. There is no estimate yet on how much the bilingual requirement would cost, Alpert said.

It's not as daunting a task as it might appear, said Duarte Silva, executive director of the California Foreign Language Project, which teaches foreign language teachers.

"We have a tremendous number of teachers in California who have a second or third language," he said. "California is a rich pool of languages to draw from," so if the state makes this a priority it can make the program work without too much difficulty.

Having a bilingual work force will only bolster California's economic future, said Sen. Richard Alarcon, D-Van Nuys. The "radical, lefty state of Wyoming" recognized the value of that skill, he said, and now requires foreign language instruction for elementary students.

Wyoming schools are required to teach foreign language to students in kindergarten through second grade, said Tim Lockwood, spokesman for the Wyoming Department of Education.

"This doesn't mean they have to be fluent," he said. "It's more a
cultural thing."


On the Net:

Read the bill, SB550, at www.senate.ca.gov