The first line of “Calling the Doves,” a children’s book by U.S. poet laureate and Fresno native Juan Felipe Herrera, says, “I was born in the tiny town of Fowler — ‘the raisin capital of the world.’ ”
The first line of the second page of the book, illustrated with farm scenes of bright green and yellow, says, “Naci en el pequeño pueblo de Fowler — ‘la capital mundial de pasas.’ ”
Both sentences mean the same thing. Throughout the book, the same story is told in two languages: English and Spanish.
Fresno State professor Laura Alamillo’s office is filled with these bilingual books – tools she says encompass the best way to teach English learners – but you won’t find them in most classrooms.
That’s because Proposition 227, passed in 1998, changed the way public schools in California teach English learners. The law requires that those students be taught primarily in English – eliminating most bilingual classrooms and intensifying an urgency to make students “English proficient” as soon as possible.
The English-only requirement can be waived at a parent’s request. But there is no guarantee that a district would have room in its bilingual program for every student. Meanwhile, districts have been criticized over the years for downplaying the exemption instead of promoting it.
But the California Multilingual Education Act, on the 2016 ballot, could change that. The proposed measure would repeal parts of Prop. 227, expanding classes where teachers use languages other than English to promote biliteracy.
Prop. 227 had just passed when Alamillo was studying at the University of California at Berkeley, where she received her Ph.D. in language, literacy and culture. She joined the country’s leading bilingual educators in researching the implementation of the legislation, which she said was “total chaos.”
“People were throwing out Spanish books saying, ‘we can’t speak Spanish anymore.’ That was the initial reaction. But Prop. 227 didn’t actually dismantle bilingual education, it just placed restrictions on using it primarily in classrooms,” Alamillo said.
“The principals were the ones making the decisions and communicating with parents. The dismantling of bilingual education didn’t really happen because of Prop. 227 – it was obviously the catalyst – but administrators were making decisions based on their own understanding of bilingual education.”
Prop. 227, although controversial, was passed by more than 60 percent of California voters, many of whom voiced concerns that bilingual programs were too risky, too expensive and often poorly executed.
Bilingual education still is widely misunderstood, and many programs that call themselves bilingual are not recognized by top educators as genuine bilingual programs.
The problem is that Prop. 227 created these misconceptions and myths, and really convinced California voters that [bilingual education] doesn’t work.
Laura Alamillo, bilingual education professor at Fresno State
Most dual-language programs use a 90/10 model, where bilingual teachers lead class in English 10 percent of the time and in another language 90 percent of the time. Over time, that ratio moves to 50/50, with the goal of graduating a class of bilingual students who can speak, read and write in both languages.
Fresno Unified School District – the fourth largest district in the state – is one of the only districts in the region to offer dual-language programs, but classes are only at a few schools, and there is a lottery to get in.
Ewing, Leavenworth and Sunset elementary schools have dual-language programs, and Yosemite Middle is slated to unveil its program later this year.
Part of Fresno Unified’s strategy is to offer high school Spanish courses for native Spanish speakers, according to Maria Maldonado, assistant superintendent for English learner services.
“We’ve found a lot of our long-term English learners don’t have fluency in the primary language, and it makes it really difficult to develop fluency in a second language,” Maldonado said. “The more advanced you are in your primary language, the more advanced you will be in English.”
Parlier Unified School District, Hanford Elementary School District and Porterville Unified School district also offer dual-language programs.
Other local districts, like Clovis and Central unifieds, offer different methods of support for English learners, mostly with the goal of getting students to learn English but not necessarily to preserve their native language.
“We had a previous bilingual model and it was difficult to sustain. It was a hot market, but we had trouble keeping the right people in the right place with the right kiddos,” said Annette Grigsby, supervisor of English learners at Central Unified. “Research tells us it doesn’t matter whatever model you use, as long as you do it well.”
Once you start learning a second language, you start seeing things from a different cultural perspective. All of a sudden, there are more possibilities and more resolutions to problems than there were when you used one language.
Stanley Lucero, California Association for Bilingual Education
“Based on sound, educational research, [dual-immersion programs] are the best model to teach English. That can’t even be refuted,” she said. “The problem is that Prop. 227 created these misconceptions and myths, and really convinced California voters that it doesn’t work.”
Stanley Lucero, a retired bilingual teacher with the California Association for Bilingual Education, worries that behind this English-focused instruction is a deeper problem. He remembers when he was kicked out of his first grade classroom for speaking Spanish.
“I was told this is America, and you speak English. If you talk to people, you’re going to find the same stories. They all will tell you the same thing,” he said. “Some people have an attitude that English is the superior language, and that leads to discrimination. I try not to focus on that part, though. I focus on the good.”
The good part, Lucero says, is that groups like CABE are fighting for students’ right to preserve their native language while also embracing English. He said there are many different approaches to teaching English learners, and his intent isn’t to criticize other methods, but to encourage bilingualism wherever he can.
“Bilingual education is a word that’s misunderstood by a lot of people … A lot of programs call themselves bilingual because they use a second language, but the goal is to move them to English as quickly as possible. And those programs have limited success,” he said.
Lucero said that the heart of his fight for bilingual education is not just to offer children a wider vocabulary, but to help them become more accepting, deeper-thinking individuals.
“Once you start learning a second language, you start seeing things from a different cultural perspective. All of a sudden, there are more possibilities and more resolutions to problems than there were when you used one language,” he said. “I personally think everyone should speak two or four languages and not be limited to one language. I think you become better because of it.”