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California's public schools to refocus on biliteracy

Courtesy of Monterey County Office of Education

The passage of California's Proposition 58 in November brings a return to more bilingual programs in the state's public schools. KCBX recently spoke with Lisa Vallejos, Senior Coordinator of English Language Arts, English Language Development, Literacy and Family Engagement at the San Luis Obispo County Office of Education. 

We asked Vallejos to explain a bit of the history of the issue, why Proposition 227 was passed in 1998 to effectively eliminate most bilingual programs and what changes parents can expect, now that Prop. 58 repeals most of Prop. 227 and allows for non-English languages to be used in public school instruction. 

MART: What happened back in the past that preceded Prop. 58?

VALLEJOS: A couple decades ago, we had a pretty extensive bilingual program statewide. And the way that it worked was parents would come in to enroll their students and they were given the option of a bilingual program. I would say back then they were probably encouraged, especially if their student came in to the district and spoke a language other than English and weren't proficient in the English language. The idea was that you would build, in primary language, some foundational literacy - you'd promote bilingualism and that students would exit a program like this literate in both languages. So that was sort of the impetus behind it.

MART: And how did that work? A second grader, say he enrolled in one of the district schools and he was not proficient in English. Would everything be, let’s say, in Spanish?

VALLEJOS: Yes, that was one of the options that you had prior to Prop 227, you could choose to be in a program where the majority of the instruction would be - especially around core subject areas - would be your primary language and then you would also have English instruction as well to develop English simultaneously with your Spanish. But the idea was to assure that you were getting the knowledge in the language that you understood. So, prior to Prop 227, if you want in an English-only program, you had to sign a waiver saying ‘I do not want a bilingual program for my student even though it may be recommended by the school district. I want an English-only program.’

MART: Why would a parent choose that?

VALLEJO: Well, you know some of them really...especially if they don't speak English themselves, they really wanted to assure that their students spoke very proficient English and in doing an English-only program, that was often a choice of a parent to say, ‘that's a way I can make sure undeniably that my child will become fluent in the language that he or she will need to be successful here in California.’ Lots of reasons. You have parents that are somewhat bilingual themselves, maybe they haven't had a lot of schooling in their primary language so they say, ‘hey you know I'm not going to really be supporting a lot of this at home so perhaps just being in English-only...’. There would be more of a chance that a parent would choose English-only with a younger sibling, because the older ones maybe are speaking more English now at home and so they're basically around a lot more English. And so that's another scenario I've seen, where a parent, maybe even with their older children had them in bilingual programs but chose an English-only program for their younger child.

MART: OK. How did Prop. 58 come about then?

VALLEJO: So again, what we're really talking about here is whether or not a parent needs to sign a waiver and waive their rights to a bilingual program, or whether or not we can just say, ‘you know, we embrace multilingual programs here and what we're going to do is inform parents of the different choices they have and just let them choose.’ Prior to Prop. 227, you had to waive into an English program. When Prop. 227 came around, you had to sign a waiver to waive into a bilingual program. And I am really simplifying this, but now we're just saying, there's all different ways to be educated and to become bilingual. There's different program options, so we're just going to lay them out, explain them very well to you and then let you choose. So that's really what Prop. 58 was doing is saying, look let's just get away - because when you say you have to waive in, it's like well what's wrong if I have to waive my rights to English education. Right? What's going on with that? And it also expanded the notion of how many students... what would trigger a district….and again this is important, to investigate whether or not they would be able to provide a program like this and that could take a full year for them to really see if they have the staffing, if they have the materials, if they can provide enough professional development to get a program like this off the ground. They had 20 students per grade level - but now it was added into this proposition - 30 students at a school. So that might look like grades three through five. If you had 30 students there, maybe you would have a combination class there, where they would provide primary language instruction and maybe that would be like for newcomer students, students who haven't had a lot of time studying here in California….a program for them.

MART: So we're here in San Luis Obispo County. What will we see now that this has been passed? What's going to happen?

VALLEJOS: Well, one of the things is we already have two schools - not just two programs - but two schools in our county; one in the north in Paso Robles Unified School District and one right here in San Luis Coastal that are TK, transitional kindergarten through fifth or sixth grade...a dual immersion program and we have them in a school together. And part of their day is instruction in English, part of their day is instruction in they might do science in Spanish and history in English. So the idea is that they come out of the program fully biliterate.

MART: With Prop. 58, will there be more programs like that all over?

VALLEJOS: Well, there is certainly now this excitement about the possibility. This will all start with the parents, right? This starts when students are enrolling in school, and now parents have more options in terms of what they can request. I really want to be clear that it doesn't mean something would start next year. It's crucial that districts take at least a year to plan this out. Districts are just wrapping their heads around this right now, so you can just go in and inquire and say, you know, what are we looking at in our school district here? Are we looking at potentially at some point having a bilingual program and where are we at with that?