Vista Unified pushes English immersion program
North County Times
October 8, 2005

By: ANNE RILEY-KATZ - Staff Writer

VISTA ---- The Vista Unified School District has all but given up on its dual-language strategy of educating Spanish-speaking students and has been moving to a "structured immersion" program to help them learn English more quickly, officials said last week.

The change comes roughly seven years after voters approved a ballot measure that outlawed bilingual education, but that allowed districts such as Vista Unified to continue the programs if parents signed waivers requesting them.

For years, the Vista district encouraged the waivers, until consistently low scores on standardized tests ---- which state and federal laws say must be administered in English ---- convinced them that change was needed, officials said.

"Evidence came to the district's and board's attention that (bilingual) programs were not providing results as quickly as possible in terms of standardized testing," said Superintendent Dave Cowles. "The scores were not reflecting the progress we wanted to see."

Test results released last month showed that 18 campuses in Vista Unified were failing to meet proficiency standards under the federal No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, largely because of the scores of non-English speaking students, officials said.

The learning curve

Roughly 7,100 non-English speakers are enrolled in the Vista Unified district, according to data provided by the district.

In the last several years, when students first entered school, parents were given a choice: either put the child in a predominantly English-speaking classroom or in a bilingual program known as "dual immersion" that included instruction in Spanish.

When Proposition 227 passed in 1998, strictly limiting bilingual education in California, Vista Unified continued to emphasize its dual-language classes, allowing students to be taught in their native language and in English.

Through the 2004-05 school year, more than 50 percent of the district's Spanish speakers were enrolled in the dual immersion bilingual program, according to Monica Nava, the district's English language development coordinator.

That number dropped to 22 percent this year, after Vista Unified trustees decided in 2004 that it was time to accelerate students' transition to English.

By the start of the current school year, 16 of the district's elementary schools had begun structured English immersion programs, in which all materials, assignments and testing are in English.

"This is the first year we've really gone for a full court press on the immersion program," said Cowles. "Our goal is to shift English language learners into (it), so they can learn English faster."

Vista's program represents a sort of middle ground between bilingual and English-only programs, officials said.

The new approach begins with 70 percent of instruction in English, but increases to 80 percent in the second and third years. Students who meet academic standards would then advance to an English-only program, while those who do not would remain in the classes.

A difficult change

Educators said ending bilingual classes in the district was hard, because some teachers and staff felt strongly that they were effective ---- until Spanish speakers had to be tested in English.

"We have an extremely skilled staff and the program >was very successful ---- but that was before they started testing the kids entirely in English," said Judy Tillyer, principal at Grapevine Elementary School.

"We are judged by test scores and ours didn't always look great," she said. "We have to do better in testing because the fact is, that's how the district is measured and perceived."

With 830 students, Grapevine is the largest of the district's elementary schools. Last year, the school had 10 bilingual classes, Tillyer said; this year, the number has dropped to four.

Tillyer said teachers feared that throwing students into a full immersion program would cause them to fall behind, because the steep learning curve required to etain a new language might preclude understanding the actual subject matter being taught.

"No matter how the programs are structured, it's always been our goal to teach English," Tillyer said. "It's the kids' success that matters. We don't want to just drop a kid in the water and say 'try to swim.' "

Another issue with the structured immersion program is that non-English speaking parents would not able to assist their children with homework assignments, a concern that has repeatedly surfaced, Nava said.

"In the past, parents could help with homework and get involved, and one danger is that now they may feel less connected to their child's education," Tillyer said.

Nava said the district has been trying to address those concerns by holding frequent teacher-parent meetings throughout the year, sending school and class notices home in Spanish and by having staff round-table meetings to find ways to keep parents in the loop.

Testing standards

Of the 18 campuses that failed to meeting state testing standards, eight were sanctioned this year by the federal government for failing to meet testing standards at least two years in a row.

To pass the English and math portions of the test, 24.4 percent and 26.5 percent of students, respectively, must score at or above their grade levels, an increase from last year, when 9 percent to 16 percent of students needed to pass.

Under the federal law, all categories of students ---- including non-English speakers ---- must meet those thresholds for the school to measure up.

For most of the federal standards, nearly all Vista schools missed their target on the English test because one of the school's subgroups ---- English-language learners or a combination of English earners, Latino students or socioeconomically disadvantaged students ---- failed the test.

But officials are hopeful that next year will be better.

"There is no question that the only thing we can do to benefit English learners the most is to move into English instruction as quickly as possible," Trustee Steve Lilly said last week. "I'm really optimistic and truly expect that we will see an increase in state language arts scores come this spring because so many more of the kids are spending their day exposed to English."

Contact staff writer Anne Riley-Katz at 631-6622 or