Article published in The San Diego Union -Tribune
The 10th annual Latino Education Summit, just held in San Diego, wasn’t much different from the previous nine. Each year, San Diego County’s Office of Education reports to educators, parents and students on how well Hispanics are faring in county schools. The news this year, as in summits past, wasn’t good – while nationally there is evidence the achievement gap between Latino and white students is narrowing, especially among younger students, a sizable gap still exists in San Diego.
The gap is even larger – up to 51 percentage points at some schools – for English learners, most of them immigrants. This is a major problem for San Diego, which has a particularly large immigrant population.
Almost a quarter of San Diego County students – about 117,000 – are English learners. That’s an increase of almost 70 percent since the early 1990s. About half of the county’s 208,000 Latino students are not fluent in English.
Interestingly, some schools are doing notably better than others in teaching these students. English learners in San Diego Unified and Oceanside Unified school districts, for example, are outperforming their peers in nearby Vista Unified.
San Diego Unified and Oceanside have embraced English immersion while Vista stubbornly sticks to its outdated bilingual program.
Vista’s bilingual students spend much of their school day instructed in Spanish, cordoned off in separate classrooms from their English-speaking peers. So it’s difficult for these immigrant students to pick up English.
San Diego Unified, on the other hand, mixes English learners with fluent English speakers. The district says learners typically account for about a third of a class. It makes sense – the best way to learn a language, after all, is to be surrounded by friends who speak it. And with 37,000 English learners in the city speaking more than 60 native languages, it’s also the only way to teach them all.
Californians embraced immersion education in 1998, when they voted overwhelmingly for Proposition 227. The initiative mandated English immersion in place of bilingual programs in California schools.
It has done wonders for many of the state’s immigrant children. In 2001, only a quarter of English learners scored in the top two proficiency categories on the California English Language Development Test. By 2004, almost half did.
The problem is, not all of California’s school districts have complied. Those that have stonewalled the law (like Northern California’s San Jose Unified), or simply have been resistant to immersion, actually brought down the state average on the CELDT. The law allows parents to seek waivers from the superintendent to keep their kids in the old programs – and many districts have encouraged or even pressured them to apply.
Vista Unified is one of them. Almost half of that district’s 6,700 English learners remain in bilingual programs six years after Proposition 227 passed.
The district is also one of only two in San Diego County that has actually increased its number of teachers providing native language, rather than mostly English, instruction.
San Diego Unified, on the other hand, has only permitted 12 percent of its English learners to remain segregated. Oceanside Unified has allowed absolutely none.
Immersion is one big reason why immigrant students in San Diego and Oceanside are outperforming those in Vista. The report presented at the Latino Education Summit found that only 15.3 percent of Vista English learners met proficiency standards in language arts in 2005, based on the California Standards Test and the California High School Exit Exam. San Diego and Oceanside, while far from perfect, did better – 21 percent and 20.7 percent respectively.
Math also saw a gap between immersion and bilingual programs. In Vista, 27 percent of immigrant students met proficiency in the subject; 31.4 percent did in San Diego. In Oceanside, 35.3 percent did – a difference of almost 8 percent. Vista’s lackluster performance can’t simply be attributed to lower scores across the board. Whites actually performed better in Vista than in Oceanside – and both districts are similar in size and background.
English proficiency is crucial to success in higher education. At last year’s summit, educators were concerned that only 8 percent of Vista’s Hispanic students had completed the courses required for college admission. Every other nearby district had rates at least double that – San Diego Unified’s was 23 percent. A Vista trustee said she wanted to find out why. Perhaps isolating immigrant Latino students from their English-speaking peers had something to do with it?
A year later, the future for Vista’s English learners remains uncertain. Last week, trustees declared Vista should scrap its bilingual programs. But some educators seem stuck on the past: At this year’s summit, Vista’s coordinator of English learner programs urged more parents to seek waivers to Proposition 227’s immersion mandate.
San Diego and Oceanside, by complying with the law, have given immigrant students what Vista has not – a real chance to learn English. It’s time for the rest of the county to follow their very successful example.
Torrance is an adjunct scholar at the Lexington Institute in Arlington, Va.
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