Alisal school district cites test results as reason for backing off bilingual education.
Thursday, August 26, 2010
More than 100 parents packed the auditorium at Jesse Sanchez Elementary School last week to learn of big changes in store for hundreds of kids in East Salinas’ Alisal School District.
Alisal, once lauded for its bilingual education programs, is radically scaling them back.
“What we’re doing isn’t working,” says Sanchez principal Alicia Fletcher. “We have to do something different.”
“Have you looked at our test scores?” asks state-appointed Trustee Carmella Franco. “They’re bottom of the barrel.”
The state Board of Education thought the scores were so bad, and governance so chaotic that earlier this year, it stripped Alisal’s elected school board of power and installed Franco with near-complete authority over district affairs.
Job one: Improve student performance, which means raising test scores.
“Students are tested in English,” says Franco, a former bilingual educator. “We need to see that they have adequate exposure to English.”
But Roberto Bedoya, whose two kids attend Jesse Sanchez, says he and other parents are fighting back because they see bilingual ability as key to their children’s future success.
“Did you go to the university?” he demands of a reporter. “Did you have to learn another language?”
In 1998, California voters approved Proposition 227, effectively ending bilingual education in the state. But the law provides an exception: If parents request a bilingual program for 20 or more children per grade, a school must provide it.
At Sanchez alone, hundreds of kids have waivers, Fletcher says. But now, even if parents like Bedoya request bilingual education, it will be limited and won’t go beyond first grade.
Lynne Aoki, a long-time education consultant based in Southern California, argues that such a bare-bones program would probably be of little benefit.
“I don’t know of any research that supports [offering] bilingual education in kindergarten and first grade, and then dropping it off,” she says.
The new program defeats its own purpose, says Francisco Estrada, a veteran second-grade teacher at Sanchez.
“[A bilingual program] is supposed to be significant and strong and lead the child to English without the loss of his home language,” Estrada says.
He points to a chart showing California’s yawning achievement gap between native English speakers and English learners has widened considerably since the passage of Prop. 227.
Still, if parents want more substantial bilingual education, they’ll have to go to another district, Fletcher says.
But some parents and teachers say they’re staying put. They asked Aoki, who also represents pro-bilingual ed group Californians Together, to take a closer look at Alisal’s test results.
Aoki analyzed the 2009 scores of fifth and sixth graders who started out as so-called English language learners and found that Alisal kids who were in bilingual classes did better than their counterparts in the district who were taught in English-only. Their scores also beat those of similar kids in the county and the state, suggesting, she says, the long-term benefit of bilingual programs might outweigh an expected short-term bump in test scores in the early grades.
Bilingual advocates are also considering legal action over whether the district’s programs for English learners are adequate.
Bay Area attorney Mary Hernandez, who once represented the Alisal district in a lawsuit over bilingual education, says they could have a case. “The time may be ripe for a challenge to the state’s programs for English learners,” she says, “because they are not working.”