Santa Cruz looks to open bilingual school
Santa Cruz  Sentinel
Jun. 22, 2007

SANTA CRUZ -- A fledgling program at DeLaveaga Elementary that teaches kids in English and Spanish is proving so popular that Santa Cruz City Schools may become one of few districts in the state to open a dual-language school.

But to open a new kindergarten through eighth-grade school, district leaders must find an appropriate location and adequate financing, and prove that dual-immersion works. "I think a dual-language school would be really powerful," DeLaveaga Principal David Freed said. "The flip-side [of starting a school elsewhere] is that dual-language fits in well at DeLaveaga and is a feather in our cap"

Success is imperative because low test scores put schools in danger of entering program improvement â€" the sanctions of No Child Left Behind that can result in a state takeover.

Indeed, devoting a school to dual-language instruction would go against a statewide trend. The number of non-English speaking students in California who receive some instruction in their native language has fallen by 75 percent since Proposition 227, which limits non-English instruction, was passed in 1996, according to Veronica Aguila, who oversees language policy for the state Department of Education.

Spanish instruction is allowed with parent permission, but the fear of students performing poorly on English-only state tests has prompted many schools to jettison classes in Spanish and other languages. Students in dual-immersion typically struggle in early grades because the first two years of school are 90 percent in Spanish.

"If you go with a two-way program it tends not to show progress in the first three years," Aguila said. "Schools don't want to be in program improvement so they get rid of the program without evaluating whether that program actually works"

Popular but untested

The dual-language program started at the now-closed Branciforte Elementary with a kindergarten class in 2003. It has attracted nearly 200 students who enroll through a lottery, and has already outgrown the portable-packed DeLaveaga campus, which has nearly 600 students. "It's such a gift to them to be able to speak two languages so well," said Shannon McCord, who has two kids in the program, "and a huge part of the program is to raise the esteem of Spanish so children feel like it's a good thing to speak Spanish"

But students in other dual-immersion schools haven't always performed well. At Alianza Charter School in Watsonville, where nearly all the students are English-learners, not a single student in grades four through six passed the state English exam last year. At River Glen School in San Jose, where there's Spanish- and English-speaking students, results have been better, but mixed. Last year, 42 percent of the school's fourth-graders passed the test, but no sixth-graders did.

"Parents like them, but there's not a lot of evidence that Latino students benefit from the program," said Ron Unz, who runs an English-only advocacy group and sponsored Proposition 227. Unz thinks dual-immersion programs are designed for the benefit of English-speaking families. "If these programs teach both groups of kids to speak both languages perfectly well after five or six years, why not start off 90 percent in English?" he said. "The answer is that the relatively affluent white parents want their kids to learn Spanish"

Two recent studies by school research centers WestEd and EdSource have found little definitive evidence that favors one method of language instruction over another. The EdSource study declared that how a school operates within any program is the critical factor, Executive Director Trish Williams said. "Based on the studies, that seems to be the case," Williams said, "but the proof is in the results. The question to ask when you're looking at a school is, 'What are that school's [test scores]?' "

So far, DeLaveaga has just one year of results for students in dual-immersion. The results show why critics question the program, which teaches first-graders in 90 percent Spanish and doesn't balance English and Spanish instruction until grade five. Last year, the scores of second-grade Spanish-speaking kids were barely half as good as Spanish-speaking kids in English-only classes.

Worth the wait

But teachers say giving students a strong foundation in their own language will pay off by the end of elementary school. And they expect dual-immersion students to outperform their English-only peers in addition to reaping the benefits and career opportunities of speaking a second language. "There's a fear about wasting time in Spanish when the goal is to speak English," third-grade teacher Sharon Reeves said. "There's a fear that it will take too long and it won't work. In first and second grade, the parents really have to trust because there's going to be a delay in English"

That was the case for Jessica and Pedro Corona, a Ben Lomond couple who have three bilingual kids in the program. "We had that experience with my third-grader," Jessica Corona said. "He was pretty slow in reading English but he just kind of made the click this year. It's kind of a leap of faith that it's all going to even out eventually" The Coronas make the trip from the San Lorenzo Valley to DeLaveaga every day because they want their kids, who speak more English than Spanish, to be close to Pedro's family, some of whom live in Mexico.

"When my oldest son went to school, all of a sudden he wasn't speaking Spanish anymore. He couldn't communicate with his grandfather," Pedro Corona said. "Last summer when we went to Mexico, it was a lot different"

A broader goal

Elevating the status of Spanish language and Mexican culture and churning out students who are advanced in two languages are the program's ultimate goals, teachers say. "I believe that being bilingual opens up amazing opportunities. It teaches kids to have a greater perspective on the world and use more of their brains," second-grade teacher Sierra Hill said. "It's a belief-shifting and we all dream that the goals we have in this program can reflect the larger society at some point"

A task force will make recommendations for the program in the fall. It's possible dual-immersion will remain at DeLaveaga and be taught in later grades at Branciforte Middle School because there is no obvious location for a new school. The district will also consider whether to charter a dual-immersion school, which would give it more latitude under state and federal regulations.

Contact Matt King at

Dual-language program

  • Instruction is 90 percent in Spanish in kindergarten and first-grade, 80 percent in second-grade, and continues to drop 10 percent each year until Spanish and English are used equally.
  • DeLaveaga Elementary has 152 students in dual-immersion from kindergarten through third-grade, including 60 dominant Spanish speakers.
  • The program will expand to fourth-grade next year.
  • Santa Cruz City Schools is exploring a school devoted to language immersion from kindergarten through eighth-grade.

Learning English: This story is the latest in an occasional series on improving English literacy and fluency in native Spanish speakers. To see previous stories, visit