Schools cope with bilingual standards

As new federal standards requiring improved student test scores
take effect this year, school districts are grappling with how to
keep scores up while complying with language waivers.
As new federal standards requiring improved student test scores take effect this year, school districts are grappling with how to keep scores up while complying with language waivers.

Even though voters passed Proposition 227 in 1998 to end bilingual education in California schools, school districts are required by law to give parents an option to have their child taught in their native language. In San Benito County, this means teaching some students in Spanish.

“Children should be given an opportunity to learn in their primary language,” said Jackie Munoz, superintendent of the Aromas-San Juan Unified School District. “These children haven’t established depth in their own language – they struggle in adding another. … When they have a solid understanding of their language, they can transfer over (to English).”

About 14 percent of students in the Hollister School District and 20 percent of K-8 students in the ASJUSD are using the waiver. Statewide, the rate is 10 percent.

While the waiver can make it difficult for schools to implement Proposition 227 and meet federal and state requirements calling for better test scores, local educators are confident of their ability to have students speaking English and doing well on accountability tests.

“The use of a primary language is not what affects (test scores). Even if you put (a Spanish speaker) in an English-only class, they’re not going to do well (on tests),” said Lonna Martinez, coordinator of English Language Learners for the HSD. “… We want to continue with efforts to increase test scores for all our students.”

California’s accountability tests are given to students beginning in second grade, said Antonio Panganiban, principal of Calaveras Elementary School. That gives schools and teachers two years to transition students into speaking and understanding some English.

Of California’s six million students, 1.5 million are not fluent in English. More than 1,600 students in the HSD have limited proficiency in English, Martinez said.

This year, schools will have to improve test scores or risk federal sanctions under the No Child Left Behind Act. Schools that fail to improve those scores two years in a row may lose federal funding as well as students because parents would then be allowed to send their children elsewhere.

“Our goal, whether it’s a bilingual class or English class, is to get kids to learn English as rapidly as possible so they can take the tests,” Panganiban said.

Munoz, Martinez and Panganiban are not worried about losing federal funding. Panganiban said the school has met its Academic Performance Index two years in a row. Also, the No Child Left Behind legislation will measure progress of all students by “sorting test results for students who are economically disadvantaged, from racial or ethnic minority groups, have disabilities or have limited English proficiency,” according to the act’s Web site.

The process of receiving bilingual education is similar in the HSD and ASJUSD, the two largest elementary school districts in the county.

When a child is registered with the district, their parents are informed that they have the option to have their student taught in their native language. The parent fills out the waiver and the district assesses which bilingual education program is appropriate for the student. In the HSD, this is done at the school level.

Panganiban said Calaveras has a panel comprised of himself, a resource teacher and a teacher.

“We try to decide where the kid might benefit the most,” he said.

There are three tiers in each district’s education program – alternative bilingual program, structured English immersion and mainstream English. Students in one of the first two categories will be assessed and possibly redesignated each school year until they have reached fluency in English – usually by the time the student reaches high school, Munoz and Panganiban said.

By the time most of the students who use the waiver are in middle school, they are being taught mostly or completely in English. Students who start out in the alternative bilingual program in kindergarten are taught in Spanish and English.

“The bilingual program is a Spanish-English program,” Panganiban said. “Students receive instruction and materials in both languages.”

At Calaveras School, kindergartners and first graders are taught in Spanish 80 percent of the time, Panganiban said. By third grade, the instruction is 50-50 and by fifth grade, students are learning in English 90 percent of the time.

Spanish instruction is concentrated on math, reading and language arts, while subjects like art, music, social science and physical education are taught in English, Munoz and Martinez said. The English instruction allows students to be integrated with fluent English speakers to help stop students from segregating on the basis of language, Panganiban said.

“Separation could happen if the students were never integrated,” he said. “Teachers work with a team and coordinate with other teachers (about when to mix their classrooms). … You have to do what’s best for the student population you have.”

Districts continually assess students not proficient in English through tests, like the California English Language Development Test and the Spanish Assessment of Basic Education, and redesignating.

“Districts have the opportunity to test in the bilingual education program,” Martinez said. “We use SABE to see if our bilingual program works. But, the state doesn’t look at that.”

Another group of students schools have to keep track of is “newcomers.” These are students who enroll in a California school after kindergarten – someone who enters the district, and even the country, at middle- or high-school age.

“Most students are coming in early … but some students have had no schooling from their home country,” Martinez said. “We have two newcomer classes where there’s no English.”

These classes are at R.O. Hardin and Marguerite Maze schools. Although the newcomer class is new, it may be one of the many programs cut when the state’s cuts in education spending come to fruition, Martinez said.

For more information on the No Child Left Behind Act, go to

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