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Vista schools struggling with bilingual education
North County Times
December 20, 2003 9:36 PM PST
By: SHANNA McCORD - Staff Writer

VISTA ---- In a school district with an increasing number of students learning English, the percentage who grasped the language well enough to be considered fluent dropped during the past year, according to district statistics.

Between 2002 and this year, the number of English learners in the Vista Unified School District who were redesignated as proficient in reading, writing and speaking English fell from 12 percent to 8 percent, causing critics to question the district's approach to bilingual education.

"Our primary purpose is not to teach two languages," said school board member Jim Gibson, a critic of bilingual education. "English has to be the primary focus."

The majority of English learners in Vista ---- about 6,845 ---- speaks only Spanish. Most have come to the United States from Mexico, some never having stepped into a classroom before arriving. Across the state, there are an estimated 1.6 million non-English speaking students, a group said to be the fastest growing segment of the state's overall student population.

"These kids are 40 percent of the public school population and are our future, and we cannot afford to not provide them with a quality education," said Mary Hernandez, a local attorney who works for the legal rights of immigrants.

English immersion vs. bilingual instruction

When a new student enters the Vista school district, parents have the option of putting the child in a predominantly English-speaking classroom or a bilingual program that includes instruction in Spanish. The choice was mandated through Proposition 227, a state law passed in June 1998 designed to emphasize English but also allow parents to sign waivers indicating a preference that their child be taught partly in their native language. If no preference is indicated, the child is automatically placed in English classes. Prior to Prop. 227, about 30 percent of the state's English learners were taught in a bilingual classroom. Now, Hernandez said, that number has fallen to 10 percent.

According to district statistics, more Vista students opt for bilingual education than English immersion. At Crestview Elementary School, 335 of 429 English learners participate in the bilingual program. At Olive Elementary School, it's 308 out of 523, and Bobier Elementary School has 403 of its 597 English learners in bilingual classes.

"We are not in a position to direct kids or parents to any program," Crestview's Principal Shelley Peterson said. "We present them with all program options and let them make the decision they feel best meets the needs of their students."

Bilingual classes in Vista are designed to progressively increase the amount of English taught and decrease the Spanish portion as students move up in grade level. In kindergarten 30 percent of instruction is in English. By fifth-grade, 90 percent of the instruction is in English, according to a matrix designed by the district.

Administrators said details of each program are carefully explained to parents so they can decide which best fits their child's needs. "Language acquisition is a process. It's going to take a long time no matter what you do," Bobier's Principal David Lacey said. "It's really important not to bias parents that way. It's not to our advantage or the child's advantage to convince a parent of something they don't want to do."

Behind the numbers

Experts say the 4 percent drop in students mastering English over the last year tells only part of the story.

"To say that only 8 percent were redesignated is like saying only 25 percent of high school students graduate every year," said Monica Nava, the district's English language coordinator.

On average, Nava said, it takes three to five years of consistent English instruction for a Spanish-speaking student to be reclassified. Some say it could take up to six years. The goal is for a student who enters the district in kindergarten to be reclassified by fifth-grade.

The district uses a standardized test ---- the California English Language Development Test ---- to measure students on a scale from one to five in the areas of reading, writing and speaking to determine English comprehension. Students must receive scores of fours and fives to earn reclassification as proficient in English. The test results released earlier this year showed 135 of the district's 475 fifth-grade English learners had achieved level four and 56 performed at level five.

"That's meaningless because we don't know when they came into the district," Hernandez said. "I want to know on average how long does it take to redesignate?"

Janine Lizarraga, a fourth-grade teacher at Crestview, teaches a bilingual class with 30 students in which about half are still grappling with English. She said the program works well and most of her students perform at levels three and four.

"I believe (bilingual) is better because if you throw them straight into English some are OK, but some get lost and never catch up again," Lizarraga said.

Teaching in Spanish prevents students from falling behind in other subjects such as math and science, she said.

"If some kids are doing long division and you're still trying to subtract, then you get some students who fail and fail miserably," Lizarraga said.

Crestview teacher Rick Holguin teaches a class that combines English speakers with English learners, which he says is a good educational mix.

"We need to increase English, but for many it's been increased too  much," he said.

The children who speak less English are brought to the back of the  class, Holguin said, so they can focus on specific needs like reading. "Often we'll read a story in Spanish so that when we hit it in  English, they'll know what's going on," he said.

Some with negative views of bilingual education see it as a deterrent to success. Board member Gibson says bilingual education should be the exception, not the rule.

"It almost handicaps them," he said. "It's frustrating as an employer when people come in to apply for a job and they don't know English. "It's not a racist statement. It has to do with seeing our kids succeed and get a decent job or go on to college."

For a bilingual program to convert children into literate English speakers, it must be continually monitored and evaluated for improvements, administrators said.

"It's working for many of our students, but it needs to work for many more," said Crestview's Peterson. "I'm not satisfied."

Contact staff writer Shanna McCord at (760) 631-6621or smccord@nctimes.com.