More changes in SR's bilingual education program
The Democrat Press
July 6, 2004
Robert Digitale

New district rules reduce amount of Spanish instruction; critics say students will suffer in long run

Santa Rosa school board members have for the second time this year taken steps that critics say will greatly diminish bilingual education in Sonoma County's largest school district.

The board has approved new rules that reduce the amount of daily instruction allowed in Spanish for elementary students. Board members also will require that bilingual teachers simultaneously teach students to read in both English and Spanish.

The decision follows action last spring when board members clarified conditions that must be in place before approving bilingual education. Critics, including parents of Spanish-speaking students, said that move will make it harder for parents to win permission to enroll their students in bilingual classes.

School officials said they needed to change the bilingual program to help more students quickly reach proficiency in English and to help raise scores on key state tests given in English.

"For the sake of the kids, we've got to do something better," board member Frank Pugh said.

But some teachers fear the new rules will limit parent choice and make it tougher for students to gain the academic preparation needed for college or successful careers.

"We need to improve the program, not scrap it," said Peter Ramirez, a Burbank School teacher.

The debate highlights long-standing disagreements within public education about how to best help students with limited skill speaking English.

Educators generally agree California schools need to do a better job helping such students learn more sophisticated academic concepts as they reach upper elementary grades and beyond -- when students switch from learning to read to reading to learn.

Some proponents maintain the best way to help those students is to teach them predominantly in English. They say that is the spirit of Proposition 227, a ballot initiative approved by state voters in 1998 that sought to restrict most instruction to English.

Bilingual teachers acknowledge that teaching in English may lead to higher test scores in the early grades, when students are learning to read in Spanish but being tested in English.

But the teachers maintain that their students eventually will outperform those taught mostly in English because their students won't be forced to first learn a new language before they can grasp key academic concepts. And they note that state law allows for bilingual instruction if enough students qualify for waivers.

In Santa Rosa, two schools, Burbank and Lincoln, have had enough eligible students -- initiated by parent requests -- to offer bilingual education. Other bilingual programs are in Windsor, Sonoma and Healdsburg.

Santa Rosa's bilingual instruction for such students in language arts formerly was 90 minutes in Spanish and 75 minutes in English. Under the approved changes, it will be 30 to 60 minutes a day in Spanish and 140 to 165 minutes in English. There will be more Spanish in kindergarten and first grade, then less in second grade and beyond.

Teachers questioned the educational soundness of trying to teach the youngest students to read in both English and Spanish. They also noted parents at Lincoln and Burbank have objected to the changes.

"We think we're going to do these kids a disservice," Lincoln teacher Shari Garn said.

In spring 2003, the most current data available, only 49 of the district's 1,998 elementary students with limited English skills were judged to have reached a fluency comparable to native English speakers. School board members said such students will have trouble graduating from high school without reaching fluency.

"A change is needed in order to give kids the best opportunity," board President Jere Jacobs said.

Besides the new rules for bilingual education, the board is hoping to help more students through pilot "English Immersion" programs next year at Monroe Elementary and Cook Middle schools.

You can reach Staff Writer Robert Digitale at 521-5285 or