Dual-Immersion Is a Success in Santa Ana, Educators Say
LA Times
July 13, 2003
 Claire Luna,
The two-way language-learning curriculum lets students serve as models for one another. Critics say it's just the old bilingual method disguised.

Educators in Santa Ana, pummeled for years over their approach to bilingual education, say their newest method for teaching English is the best yet. They point to classrooms such as that of kindergarten teacher Luz Martinez at King Elementary. When her students learn the letter "y," they scrawl sentences about "yemas" and "yates" rather than their English equivalents, "yolks" and "yachts." Even those who never spoke a word of Spanish before this year join the exercise.  Santa Ana's dual-immersion, or two-way, approach mixes native English and Spanish speakers in the same classrooms so they serve as models for their peers as they learn each other's language. Critics say the program is a poorly disguised version of bilingual education since the Santa Ana program has many more Spanish speakers than native English ones.

Since the program started in Santa Ana six years ago, the first group of students to learn under the system is headed this fall to middle school, where they will take science and literature courses in Spanish and their other classes in English.

The approach elicits praise from teachers and other professionals, because students in the program are posting test scores higher than their peers outside the program and they are entering sixth grade fluent in English and Spanish.

Similar success stories have been recorded in Orange County's other dual-immersion programs in the Saddleback Valley and Capistrano unified school districts.

Because of the Santa Ana pilot program's success, the district will expand it from two campuses the other school is Jefferson Elementary to 10 elementary schools in the next two years.

It is a language development milestone in Santa Ana, the center of a bilingual education debate that last fall brought to town Silicon Valley millionaire and bilingual education opponent Ron Unz. He pumped $100,000 into the successful campaign to recall school board Trustee Nativo V. Lopez, whom Unz accused of encouraging schools to flout laws requiring that classes be taught in English. Lopez has denied the charge.

The experience of King Elementary is especially noteworthy, they say, because of the shortage of native English speakers to fill the classes. There the program is labeled "modified dual-immersion," because about 80% of the students are English learners, versus the usual 50-50 mix.

Even with a shortage of English-speaking pupils, students in King's program are speaking both languages comfortably within five years, educators say. The dual-immersion approach is growing in popularity in socio-economically and ethnically diverse districts nationwide, said Julie Sugarman, research assistant and an authority on the method with the Center for Applied Linguistics in Washington, D.C.

"There's the ideal model of a two-way [program], but oftentimes the reality is different," she said. "You take whatever you have and you work with that, and it doesn't end up being bad in any way."

Educators emphasized that even modified two-way programs are vastly different from English immersion, which immediately puts students in English-only classes and is the method most Santa Ana schools use, or traditional bilingual education, in which students learn academic subjects in their native languages while also studying English, then gradually shift to mainstreamed classes.

The two-way strategy, officials say, is paying off. Standardized-test scores for students in the program are as much as 30 percentage points higher than for their peers. And the fifth-graders who graduated from King this year have, in four years, averaged in the 40th percentile on the English SAT9 test a score that, while below the county average, is about 25 points higher than for other King students.

Santa Ana district officials acknowledged that students in voluntary programs, like those at charter or private schools, tend to have more academically minded parents and would likely have higher test scores no matter how they were learning English.

"They probably would have done well regardless, but they wouldn't be bilingual," said Tillie Arias, curriculum specialist for Santa Ana's bilingual education department.

At King, parents have voluntarily enrolled one-third of the school's 1,300 students in the two-way program. English and Spanish learners are combined starting in kindergarten and become fluent in both languages by the fifth grade.

Several studies show that children learn English better in two-way programs than through English immersion or traditional bilingual education, said Marsha Vargas, two-way program director for the California Assn. for Bilingual Education.

In traditional bilingual programs, she said, the teacher is their only English-speaking model, and in English immersion, they're taught in a language they don't understand.

Two-way instruction, she said, promotes bilingual interaction among children eager to learn from one another. "Children learn much more from their peers than they do with us," Vargas said.

Since 1998, state law has required that students be taught primarily in English unless parents opt for bilingual education by signing a waiver, and educators have struggled over how best to teach non-English speakers.

For years, the issue has bitterly divided many in Santa Ana, said Howard Bryan, director of the district's bilingual education department.

The fight has played out in school board debates and picketing around Santa Ana, with police called a half-dozen times last year to quell skirmishes. Opponents of bilingual education say it is a remedial program, but others say that in a district where up to two-thirds of students are learning English, it's impossible to keep Spanish out of the classroom.

"So many battles have been fought in our district around bilingual education," Bryan said. "Anything that even remotely smacks of teaching English learners in Spanish sparks the fight all over again."

Most opposition to dual-language programs comes from a vocal minority opposed to any program with a bilingual label, Sugarman said.

"It's not that uncommon for people to be against two-way immersion," she said. "But the fight is usually about something else, about people who don't look like them and don't talk like them."

Unz, who co-authored Proposition 227, the successful 1998 initiative banning bilingual education unless parents sign waivers, is skeptical about whether children in two-way programs learn English as well as their peers in English-only classes. He suggests that King Elementary, with its many English learners, has merely renamed a traditional bilingual program.

"They're slapping a different label on something to avoid the sorts of negative implications associated with traditional bilingual programs and get around the argument that bilingual doesn't work," Unz said. Bryan countered that providing options to parents is a school district's duty. It would be unfair for Santa Ana to deny children the chance to be in a two-way program just because their neighborhoods do not lend themselves to a 50-50 mix, he said.

"It's about providing opportunities for English- and Spanish-speaking kids to learn another language, regardless of the neighborhood they live in," he said. Because the neighborhood around King is poor, many middle-class parents have been reluctant to enroll their children there, Bryan said. Extensive classroom tours and meetings with district officials have swayed some parents of Spanish learners, with next year's kindergarten classes skewed more closely to the half-and-half blend. The children in Martinez's class, along with the 700 others in the district's two-way programs, have a regimented schedule, learning specified subjects in English and the others in Spanish. The other language can be spoken only at the appropriate time. In some classes, laminated signs at the front of the room remind students when it's "English time" or "Spanish time."

Lorena Pulido, whose second-grade son, Matthew, is one of the few English-speaking models in King's program, enrolled him to help him retain his Latino heritage. Still, district officials had to convince her of the benefits since she worried that her son wouldn't learn English as well as his peers in English-only classes.

She said she has been pleasantly surprised by how well Matthew took to Spanish, going from not speaking any at all in kindergarten to writing and singing in the language. Now even his siblings are interested in learning Spanish.

Still, Pulido understands why other English-speaking parents might be reluctant to enroll their children in two-way because they don't understand how it differs from traditional bilingual education.

"But they are totally different programs," she said. "One is about having children learn from each other, so kids in many cultures benefit, and the other is about separating them."Spanish-speaking parents with children in Santa Ana's program said they like the fact that students learn English while retaining their first language.

Griselda Morales has two sons in the King program: fourth-grader Terry Cervantes and sixth-grader Ulises Cervantes. Morales, who speaks only Spanish, said she has enjoyed watching her sons thrive in the program.

"They are learning English so well while keeping their Hispanic heritage," she said. "They are very intelligent, but I'm not sure that would have been obvious had they not been in this program and encouraged to shine."