California businessman campaigns in state to change the way schools teach English language-learners |

California businessman campaigns in state to change the way schools teach English language-learners

Reid Williams

Editor’s Note: Each Tuesday through the end of the school year, the Summit Daily News will present a story about the challenges and successes of the English as a Second Language program and diversity in the Summit School District and surrounding community.

SUMMIT COUNTY – Local English as a Second Language teachers don’t know Ron Unz, but they’re afraid of him. Some downright don’t like him, and that’s putting it politely.

Unz is not a teacher. The California software developer ran for governor once, but didn’t win. His current mission is eliminating bilingual education, and he’s spent millions of dollars to get ballot initiatives passed in his home state and Arizona. If he and his supporters can collect enough signatures to get his proposal put on the ballot in November, he’ll ask Colorado voters to do the same.

“The idea is the students will be taught English as soon as they start by being rapidly immersed in it,” Unz said Friday from his Palo Alto offices, which double as the home of his English for the Children campaign. “Once they learned enough – which would probably just take a few months or a year – then they’re mainstreamed into regular classes.”

His proposal would outlaw programs where the majority of teaching is done in the student’s native language. What’s more, it would hold teachers financially liable if they don’t comply, as well as prohibit them from holding any public office for five years after they’re caught. Unz said similar proposals passed in California and Arizona are responsible for improved performance on state standardized tests, although academicians have questioned his analysis of test results.

“It flies in the face of years of research,” said Sarah Cox, Summit’s district ESL coordinator. “Children may learn to get by on the playground in a year, but study after study shows that full academic proficiency, the kind of language you need to understand and communicate deeper concepts, isn’t going to develop for five to seven years.”

Summit Schools do not use a bilingual education program, although there is some interest in developing one. The schools use structured immersion: They focus on teaching the students English by putting them in mainstream classrooms, giving them special assistance with reading and vocabulary skills, and some teachers who speak the student’s native language use it to double-check understanding or complement instruction. Students “exit” the ESL program when they score in the 50th percentile of a language test, but because the program is only six years old, teachers don’t yet have enough data to say how long it’s taking Summit students to absorb English.

Henley Huang, a Frisco Elementary third-grader, moved here two years ago. He’s learning English quickly – he says so himself – but he gets confused. He’s not aware of the politics surrounding bilingual education, but he said he thinks it would be good for him.

“It would be nice if someone spoke Chinese,” Huang said, taking a break from writing a letter to a pen pal in Michigan (an ESL student from Mexico). “I need to speak English because I live here, but I get confused and the teacher doesn’t know (how to explain). I speak Chinese at home, but I am teaching my mom English.”

Keeping bilingual programs legal would raise other questions: If a program is offered in Spanish, is that fair to Russian speakers, or Chinese speakers such as Huang? As Summit Middle School ESL teacher Jessica Spring says, however, “Just because we can’t do it for all of them, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do it.”

Summit High School 10th-grader Pablo Miranda has been learning English for five years. He said he was lucky that, when he arrived, he had friends who spoke English. Spanish-speaking teachers helped him a lot, he said, and without them, many of his friends would not understand anything in school.

“I would have learned quicker without them,” Miranda said. “But when the teachers can explain things to you in Spanish, you learn better. We don’t need to learn quicker; we have lots of time to learn.”

Some teachers don’t know what to think. Karen Pelham is Frisco Elementary’s reading specialist and works with ESL students and English-speakers. She’s studied some Spanish and uses it when she can; Chinese is another story. Pelham said she uses Spanish to tell the difference between a child who can read the words and a child who understands them.

“For me, I have to measure success in what they can do,” Pelham said. “Is it better to spend $1,000 on books in Spanish for them, or in English? I don’t know. I just don’t know.”

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