pushes English immersion program
North County Times
October 8, 2005
By: ANNE RILEY-KATZ -
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,
"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
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
That number dropped to 22 percent this year, after Vista Unified trustees
decided in 2004 that it was time to accelerate students' transition to
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,"
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.
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
Contact staff writer Anne Riley-Katz at 631-6622 or firstname.lastname@example.org.