Proposition 227 speaks to Minnesota

From kindergarten through high school, I grew up alongside children who didn’t speak much English.
I use the term “alongside” because we certainly didn’t seem to attend school together as one social group of classmates. They had separate classrooms and bilingual teachers. On the playground, they talked amongst themselves in Spanish, which seemed to be a private, secret language.
It wasn’t until after I returned home to California, having been away at college, that I asked myself, “Why didn’t I know more of the Hispanic students I had grown up with for 12 years?” The answer became clear last month, when I learned of California’s Proposition 227, which would change bilingual education in public schools.
In California, as in many states, non-English-speaking students are placed in bilingual classrooms where they are taught in their native tongue until they are proficient enough to be placed with regular students. It sometimes takes five or six years for students to move out of bilingual classes, according to the initiative’s supporters.
Many people say this system is costly because bilingual teachers receive higher salaries. Moreover, it has proven ineffective, as many non-English-speaking students graduate from high school without sufficient reading and writing skills.
Ron Unz, the proposition’s author, hopes to turn around the way students learn English by limiting bilingual education to one year, followed by complete immersion into an English-only classroom.
The proposed changes have erupted into a statewide controversy with national implications as it touches on issues of immigration, race, education and cultural adaptation. It doesn’t help that education experts and their respective studies support both sides.
The White House even responded last week, when President Bill Clinton said the initiative would send children into “intellectual purgatory” and violate students’ civil rights to receive an education.
It seems everyone wants to help limited-English students succeed in school. The debate is over the best way to accomplish this, but the larger issue is how our nation can adapt to a more diverse group of faces and nationalities.
By addressing problems with bilingual education, we realize that our nation will become more diverse — not only racially and religiously, but linguistically as well. It is no longer a few Hispanic children in a class full of white students, but students who speak several different languages.
One of California’s largest problems is using a blanket approach for a diverse group of students.
But the second and more serious offense is that they kept bilingual students in English as Second Language programs for too long, which often not only hurt students academically, but culturally as well.
In my own California classrooms, the programs indirectly placed students into different social groups. This not only encouraged us to speak our separate languages within our own groups, but we missed wonderful social and cultural opportunities to learn from each other.
The few non-English-speaking children I did befriend were those who somehow got out of ESL classes. It was easier to talk to them about important stuff, like handball, when they felt confident enough to use their English and I felt confident enough to learn a little of their language.
As the years went on, it became clear that not all students learned as quickly as others or mixed as easily with their peers.
Bilingual education reform in California is walking a tightrope with its proposed one-year limits. Although California’s bilingual issues seem to have no bearing on life in Minnesota, they serve as a wake-up call to Minnesota’s predominately white-bred population.
In Minnesota, there are more than 48,000 K-12 students identified as non-native English speakers. That number has increased 15 percent every year since 1985, according to the Department of Children, Families and Learning.
Hmong students, who trace their roots to Southeast Asia, make up largest group with language needs in the state, followed by Hispanic, Vietnamese, Laotian, Cambodian and Somalian students. Public schools are finding it increasingly difficult to locate teachers skilled in teaching English to non-English speakers.
Today, Minnesota’s classrooms, and the rest of the nation’s, contain students with a wider range of language needs. They can’t solve the problem with one instructor and one program in one year.
For example, immigrant children’s needs often depend upon their native country. Education specialist Bounlieng Phommasouvanh, of the state’s education department, says children from Eastern European countries often arrive with stronger academic skills than those from other countries, like Somalia, where the educational system has suffered because of political conditions.
In other words, some students just need language help. Others may be completely new to any kind of organized educational system. It would be nearly impossible for a school to adequately prepare such students in a single year.
I’m not an education expert. But I’m hopeful that Minnesota can meet students’ needs without repeating California’s mistakes.
When I look back on my public education in California, it’s easy for me to see the mistakes that my schools made. I feel a bit ashamed that I knew the faces of many ESL students but didn’t know them as people. It wasn’t just from my own lack of effort; our different languages prevented us from communicating and the separate classrooms kept us apart.
I support California’s efforts to take a second look at how they serve bilingual students. The efforts to move bilingual students into English-only classrooms quickly is a good idea for today’s multicultural classrooms. But forcing all students into regular classrooms after a single year ignores the complexity of different students’ abilities.
Our education system must find the delicate balance to ensure that students master English without isolating them in their own social groups. We should want our children to grow up with each other, not alongside each other.

Sara Goo’s column appears every Tuesday. She welcomes comments via e-mail at [email protected]