Bilingual teacher Liliana Martinez does not speak a word of English to her 27 kindergartners at the Thomas Edison Language Institute in Sacramento.
She speaks Spanish. All the time. Even during recess.
Eighteen years ago, over the span of a generation of schoolkids, California voters agreed to eliminate most public school instruction in languages other than English through Proposition 227. Since then, the desire by English-speaking families to immerse their children in foreign language instruction has grown, along with a push to revoke limits on non-English education.
In November, California voters will have a chance to reverse parts of the 1998 law, possibly enabling an expansion of bilingual schools and classes. Proposition 58 would eliminate the need for waivers and allow districts to create new language programs in consultation with parents on behalf of 1.4 million English learners.
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“I think the biggest change would be in how people begin to think about bilingual or dual immersion programs,” said Patricia Gándara, a research professor at UCLA. “I think it would begin to open up more conversations about what’s possible for our children.”
Dual immersion programs like the one at Thomas Edison seek a balance of English speakers and English learners. At Thomas Edison, kindergartners get 90 percent of their instruction in Spanish. In first-grade, the ratio shifts to 80 percent Spanish and 20 percent English. By fourth grade, it reaches 50-50.
The program is particularly popular among English-speaking families who want their children to develop the ability to speak fluently in a second language at a young age. In class last week, Martinez faced a sea of ethnically diverse kindergartners as she taught rules of capitalization.
“Todos los nombres se escriben con una mayúscula,” Martinez said. Translation: “All names are written with a capital letter.”
“Mayúscula,” said students, chiming in on the Spanish word for “capital letter.”
Martinez has the class for 90 percent of the day. She said speaking only Spanish during these hours eliminates lapses into English. The students get 10 percent of the day’s instruction in English language development from another teacher.
“I’m actually pretty impressed by how much they have acquired already,” Martinez said of her students. “I see many of them trying really hard. And I know that they comprehend because they are able to follow directions.”
In third grade, teacher Karina Gutierrez last week walked her students through math rounding problems, all in Spanish. She said the young students’ ability to learn language is impressive. And students do help one another over rough spots.
“I can speak to people who only know Spanish and they know very little English, like Gabriel,” said third-grader Charlie Seashore, motioning to his friend nearby.
Erin Browne Montoya has children in kindergarten and second grade at the school. And while she can speak Spanish, her children speak English at home. She said the youngest children are most open to new languages.
“At this age, there’s no resistance,” she said. “They can accept so much more. They don’t have preconceived notions. They’re not at an age where they would be embarrassed to talk.”
Montoya said her mother spoke Spanish. But she focused on English and did not study the language until high school. Now she wants her own children to embrace a second language, saying it can teach them that “the world is bigger than the little bubble we have in the United States.”
Thomas Edison this year has 313 students in dual immersion, from transitional kindergarten through sixth grade. Another 486 students learn in a traditional English-only track. There is a waiting list for both, administrators said. A handful come from outside the San Juan Unified School District. Over the next two years, the dual immersion track will extend to seventh and eighth grades.
Martha Quadros, head of San Juan Unified’s program for English language learners, said the dual immersion track is popular among English-speaking parents who want global, multicultural exposure for their children. But it has been more challenging to convince Spanish-speaking families to enroll.
“I think the challenge for us was recruiting Latino students,” she said. “Sometimes parents want their kids to learn English but don’t understand how developing their home language helps them transition to a second language.”
Proposition 58 opponents argue that non-English speakers have benefited since bilingual classes were mostly eliminated. Ron Unz, the Silicon Valley software entrepreneur who backed the 1998 initiative, said he believes many backers of bilingual education are affluent English-speaking families who want their children to benefit from non-native speakers.
“I think in a lot of districts it tends to be the Anglo families who want the dual immersion and have a lot more clout. They are putting on the pressure to get more families to participate,” Unz said.
Parents from two Spanish-speaking families at Thomas Edison disagree with his characterization, saying they see their own benefits in bilingual education.
Fabiola Garcia she was alarmed when she realized her son was losing interest in Spanish. “Every time I spoke to him in Spanish, he answered in English,” she said.
“I said, ‘No. You need to speak in Spanish,” she said. She enrolled her son as a kindergartner. This year he is in the fourth grade, and she said he’s doing well speaking both Spanish and English.
The same is true for Maria Sanchez, who enrolled her fifth-grade daughter at Edison when she was a kindergartener.
“I was concerned,” she said. “She was losing her Spanish. She was able to understand. But she was unable to speak” the language.
A 2014 study by the Stanford Graduate School of Education researchers followed 18,000 English learners in San Francisco schools over 10 years. It found that students in all-English tracks picked up the language more quickly, while those in multilingual programs performed slightly better on standardized tests.
Dual immersion programs in the Sacramento region include languages beyond Spanish, such as Mandarin and Hmong. Programs exist in the Davis Joint Unified School District and in Sacramento City Unified, while Washington Unified this fall opened a dual immersion kindergarten class in West Sacramento, which will grow as students progress through grade levels. And magnet programs operate at elementary schools in Folsom and Rancho Cordova.
Experts say if Proposition 58 passes, they expect increased demand for teachers proficient in language and in academics such as math and science.
“It depends on the schools and the community and the leadership and how that plays out,” said Karen Cadiero-Kaplan, who chairs dual language and English learner education at San Diego State University. “The bigger challenge will be at the middle and high school level. That’s where we’re going to see the biggest demand.”