Bilingual-Education Waiver Pays off with Better Grades: Other California School Districts Eye English Immersion

Article excerpt

LOS ANGELES - Students in the first California school district to win a waiver of long-standing state bilingual-education requirements significantly improved both their academic performance and English-language skills during the first 18 months they were placed in English-immersion classrooms.

The results from the 9,544-student Westminster School District in suburban Orange County will be presented to the California Board of Education in December, when the district tries to make permanent a temporary waiver it won in late 1995.

They also are expected to be used by a growing movement of California school districts that want to dispense with bilingual classes - months before a proposed ballot initiative to ban them in all public schools is due to qualify for June's primary-election ballot.

So far, three other school districts totaling more than 40,000 students have won temporary waivers of state requirements that students who speak little or no English be schooled in their native languages while gradually learning English.

Dozens of other districts have sent staffers to the four areas, all located in conservative Orange County. At least 10 applications for similar waivers are expected to be filed in the next three months.

The Westminster students on average placed in the 60th percentile on the California Achievement Test IV, up from the 56th percentile under the former bilingual program. In English-language comprehension, scores among former bilingual students rose from an average of 34 to 39 on the test's 99-point scale.

The rate of progress toward English proficiency also improved dramatically. Under bilingualism, just 4 percent of English-deficient students advanced each year to the point of not requiring any help in their native language. But that rate has climbed to 10 percent yearly under English immersion, with native Vietnamese and Spanish speakers improving at an equal clip.

Supporters of bilingual classes maintain those numbers may be illusory.

"They haven't yet compared immigrant students with their English-speaking peers in all subjects," said Silvina Rubinstein, executive director of the California Association for Bilingual Education. "Bilingual instruction is more effective because students are taught all academic subjects in their native languages."

Westminster, home of the so-called "Little Saigon" concentration of Vietnamese immigrants, led the waiver movement because of a "Catch-22" situation: The district, with 23 percent of its students English-deficient native speakers of Vietnamese, was required to hire 57 certified teachers bilingual in English and Vietnamese. But in mid-1995, the entire state had only 44 such teachers.

Westminster, which enrolls almost an equal number of English-deficient Spanish speakers, also had difficulty finding enough certified Spanish-speaking teachers. …