Bilingual Education: New Visions for a New Era

By Barbara Miner

A year ago, Starlight elementary school in Watsonville, CA, faced potential disaster. California voters had just approved Proposition 227, which took a sledgehammer to bilingual education and mandated “English-only” programs. What would that mean for the bilingual programs at Starlight, where 80% of the school’s students are Latino, many of them recent immigrants, or migrants with limited English skills?

Up a hill and a long baseball throw away, Alianza elementary school confronted a similar dilemma. Alianza, also overwhelmingly Latino, had a “two-way bilingual immersion” program in which English-dominant and Spanish-dominant kids are mixed together in classes and learn both languages. The school feared that Proposition 227 would decimate its program.

Starlight chose to take advantage of what some consider a loophole in Proposition 227, which allows parents to sign a waiver and demand their child receive a bilingual education. The overwhelming majority of Starlight parents chose to do so.

One problem with the waiver option, however, is that 30 days must pass before the waiver option can be implemented. Alianza, worried about losing a month of bilingual instruction, chose instead to become a charter school and circumvent Proposition 227’s mandates.

Despite their different responses to Proposition 227, Alianza and Starlight have similar goals: giving all students the chance to be biliterate in both English and Spanish, graduating students who perform at high academic levels, and developing a school culture that respects diversity and multiculturalism.

“We feel bilingual education is critical to our students’ success,” says Starlight principal Noni Mendoza Reis. “All of the data in our district shows that bilingual works. If we know that, and we have the data to prove it, then we have the responsibility to maintain our biliteracy model.”

But Reis stresses that bilingualism is only part of what drives education at Starlight. “The broader vision is multicultural education, anti-racism, and a pedagogy of equity,” she said.

Michael Jones, principal at Alianza, takes the position that if politicians are going to throw eggs, schools must learn to make omelets. “If there is a silver lining in [Proposition] 227,” he told Rethinking Schools, “it is that people are going to have to be very clear about what their programs are about. Parents who are signing a waiver are making a strong statement that they want their kids to be truly biliterate and truly bilingual. That was not necessarily the case with all the bilingual education programs in the past.”

What happens at Starlight and Alianza will affect far more than their students. Together, the two schools are part of a much broader movement: the development of a new vision of bilingual education.

Above all, bilingual educators stress the need to move beyond an approach that views bilingual education as a remedial program for kids who don’t speak English; instead to replicate successful models that stress high academic quality and strive to teach children to be truly bilingual.

Kids who don’t speak English have traditionally been seen as yet another problem the schools must “fix,” notes Richard Ruiz, head of the Department of Language, Reading, and Culture at the University of Arizona in Tucson. This approach has even infected many bilingual programs. Ruiz is cautiously hopeful that out of the struggles over bilingual education “might come a new orientation, what I call language-as-resource, in which minority communities and their languages are esteemed for the value they bring to everyone, not just themselves. This has to be the future of bilingual education or it has little, if any, future.”

There is no one commonly accepted vision of bilingual education. But those thinking about a new vision tend to emphasize similar themes, such as globalism, multiculturalism, biliteracy, high academic expectations, respect for parents and community, and bilingualism as an opportunity for all. Pieced together, one might synthesize the themes into a vision along the following lines:

We believe in “English-plus” for all. In this increasingly global age, bilingualism is a wonderful advantage. All students, including English-dominant students, should have the opportunity to learn to read, write, and speak in two languages. Furthermore, good bilingual programs are about more than learning a language. They should be based on a respect for diversity and multiculturalism, and parents and community must be essential partners. Above all, bilingual programs must ensure that all the students are performing at high academic levels.

One question looms large, however. Will there be time to implement and build political support for such a vision before conservatives succeed, as they promise they will, in gutting bilingual education in this country? (See sidebar.)

One of the common misconceptions about bilingual education is that it’s merely about quickly learning English. Research has shown the success of those bilingual programs in which the children are allowed sufficient time to both maintain their first language and become proficient in a second language. (See Rethinking Schools Vol. 13, #2.)

One of the key rationales for a bilingual program is concern for academic performance. Kids who do not speak English lose academically if they do not have the chance to learn content area — math, science, social studies — in their native language while also learning English. Studies also make it clear that students who learn to read and write (and not only speak) in their native language are better able to become proficient in a second language. They note there is a big difference between learning “street” English and speaking passably well, and being able to perform academically in English.

That’s not to say there aren’t valid criticisms of some bilingual programs. Bilingual advocates underscore the importance of directly addressing the problems — while noting these problems often mirror shortcomings in monolingual programs, especially in under-funded urban districts. Some of the challenges most frequently mentioned are: a lack of qualified bilingual teachers, the need for clear models and structures for learning a second language while maintaining the child’s first language, and the need for increased emphasis on high quality academics grounded in a multicultural, child-centered philosophy.

“The fact remains that we do have bilingual programs in certain schools that are poor-quality programs and are going to turn parents off,” said Tony Baez, a long-time advocate of bilingual education who currently is with the Milwaukee Area Technical College. “And if we in bilingual education do not face this, the conservatives will raise it. And they will raise it in a negative context.” (See related article, “To Improve Bilingual Ed . . .”)

On the Ground

How might a new vision of bilingual education manifest itself in the classroom, where, like all reforms, it will either succeed or fail? Starlight and Alianza provide clues.

Starlight, which is nine years old, first had a bilingual program that Reis called “early-exit.” Under this model, students began kindergarten speaking Spanish but were expected to move into English-only programs by third grade. Spanish was dropped completely at that point. There were two big problems: the kids didn’t have sufficient English skills by third grade to be able to keep up academically, and they were unable to maintain their skills in Spanish and become truly bilingual.

The school then shifted to a “late-exit” model, especially after Starlight’s district found that kids who had been in Spanish bilingual programs longer were doing better in high school. Both the “early-exit” and “late-exit” models were founded on what is often called a “transitional” model — which means that the main goal is to “transition” kids into English-only classes, often with little regard for maintaining their first language. The overwhelming bulk of bilingual programs in this country are transitional, even though research has shown that the best bilingual programs also develop and maintain a child’s first language.

This year, Starlight moved to what it calls a “biliteracy” model — a word somewhat alien to parents but increasingly common among educators who want to emphasize that true bilingualism involves not just speaking in two languages but also reading and writing. Reis said the “biliteracy” approach also offers a way to more formally introduce English and to counter criticisms that bilingual programs teach too much in Spanish at the expense of English.

Reis said Starlight was able to adopt “biliteracy” in the face of Proposition 227 because of the support in the district for bilingual education. The superintendent took the stance that “diversity and multilingualism are a plus for our city, which was courageous in light of 227.” Under district policy, schools must have a specific model to offer parents who sign a waiver to continue in bilingual education. The district models offered are dual-immersion or biliteracy, both of which emphasize becoming proficient in both English and Spanish.

“We are using the challenge of 227 and turning it into an opportunity to develop a solid bilingual program that we know will be successful for our school,” said Reis. “We capitalized on the word ‘biliterate.’ That was key for us.”

At Starlight, the “biliteracy” bilingual program moves from 90% instruction in Spanish in kindergarten to 20% in fifth grade. Those percentages may be adjusted in coming years as Starlight evaluates how best to ensure academic achievement and language development. “We’re constantly evaluating and assessing our program,” notes Irene McGinty, coordinator of professional development at Starlight. “We’re in a process of evolution.”

By fifth grade, when students graduate, the goal is that anyone who wants to be, can be literate in both Spanish and English. But not all parents want that. Furthermore, there are 13 languages spoken at the school, and bilingual education cannot be offered in all 13.

Thus Starlight offers what seems to the outsider a dizzying array of possibilities, all designed to provide as many options as possible. Of the school’s 36 classrooms, 22 are bilingual, 10 are mainstream English, and four are “structured English immersion” — the “English-only” program mandated by Proposition 227 for students who do not speak English as their first language.

To complicate matters, English-dominant students are allowed to enroll in the bilingual program. And students in the non-bilingual programs are given Spanish enrichment at all grade levels, in which 10% of instruction time is devoted to Spanish.

In what is clearly an understatement, McGinty says: “Parent choice is a major component of our program.”

Reis and McGinty said that one of the lessons to be learned from Starlight is that each school must make decisions based on its own particularities: who are the students, who are the staff, what do parents want, what are the community’s priorities, what is the school’s overall educational philosophy. For instance, while Starlight is committed to biliteracy, it is equally committed to a multicultural curriculum. One reason it did not move to a “dual-immersion” program is that it had many good monolingual teachers who were committed to what Reis called “a culturally responsive pedagogy.”

“If we had gone to a dual-immersion program, what would we have done with those good teachers?” she asked.

In the Classroom

This twin emphasis on multiculturalism and bilingualism is evident in Jamy Stillman’s combined fourth/fifth-grade bilingual class at Starlight. During a visit one afternoon last fall, the students were sitting in small groups during a “literature study circle.” The thematic unit was “Unlearning Native American Stereotypes,” and kids were reading books in both Spanish and English, such as Encounter, by Jane Yolen, or a Spanish version of Ta’nos, by Michael Dorris. There were both English and Spanish versions of Death of the Iron Horse, by Paul Goble.

Claudia, one of the students, is reading Encounter in English but writing about the book in her journal in Spanish. She said she speaks Spanish at home and reads in both Spanish and English. Joshua, meanwhile, speaks Spanish but prefers to read in English, “Cause I’m used to that.” At home, he added, “I speak in Spanish with my grandma cause she doesn’t know English.”

Classroom posters and projects are bilingual. One project, “All About Us” (“Acerca de nosotros”) has graphs about favorite books, or colors, or movies. “¿Cual es tu pelicula favorita?” (“What is Your Favorite Movie?”) asks one graph.

Stillman said Proposition 227 has not changed the structure of her class. “The goal is still a biliteracy class — and true biliteracy, not monolingual Spanish,” she said. “That’s a huge misconception, that bilingual programs are not taking the steps to move kids into English.”

If anything, Stillman said, she felt that the English-dominant kids were not getting as strong a dose of Spanish as they need. “It’s tricky.” she said. “One problem is that there is a societal attitude that it isn’t that important to learn Spanish. Also, the kids who are learning Spanish are just not exposed to it in the same way the Spanish-speaking kids are to English.”

Stillman said that about 75% of her students are native Spanish speakers, and that her priority is making sure that all the kids are proficient in English before they graduate from Starlight. Stillmann worries that a child who is not English proficient by middle school might be tracked into less academically challenging courses, whether in a bilingual or monolingual program.

Alianza’s Dual Immersion

Located on a hilltop overlooking the gentle hills of Watsonville, Alianza Elementary has adopted a program that is on the cutting edge of bilingual education: dual immersion, sometimes referred to as two-way immersion, two-way bilingual, or, to cover all bases, two-way-bilingual immersion. Whatever the name, the concept is the same: Kids who are dominant in English sit alongside kids who are dominant in Spanish and, together, they learn each others’ languages and cultures.

There are 650 students currently at Alianza, which runs from kindergarten through sixth grade. Some 90% of the kids are Latino and 84% qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. The school started down the two-way path based, in part, on research from across the country. “Two-way immersion or maintenance programs are the ones that show kids succeeding in English over time,” Jones, the principal, said.

The two-way approach also addresses several other criticisms hurled at bilingual programs. First of all, they require the participation of English-dominant students, thus underscoring that bilingual education need not be “special treatment” for “those kids” but rather is a resource and opportunity for all children. Two-way approaches also counter complaints of segregation and foster a multiracial approach, embracing white kids, Latino kids, African-American kids, and Asian kids who want to learn a second language. Most of all, it views bilingualism as a positive, rather than a negative.

These two-way programs were little-known a decade ago. Today there are more than 225 such schools across the country, with plans for more every day. (A database with information on all these two-way programs can be accessed on-line at

“Both so-called opponents and advocates [of bilingual education] agree that two-way programs are pedagogically sound, are good for both kids who are learning English as well as kids learning a non-English language, and they work extremely well,” notes Jim Cummins, a well-known expert in bilingual education at the University of Toronto.

Alianza started in 1980 as a magnet school tied to a voluntary desegregation plan. From the beginning it offered a bilingual program. It was an exciting time, and the school became a flagship bilingual program, attracting whites from the more affluent areas in addition to poorer Latinos. The first years were successful, but over time both parent enthusiasm and the quality of programs suffered. The school’s waiting list dwindled and ultimately died. “The main criticism was that Spanish kids were not learning English fast enough, and that the overall academic achievement was too low,” said Jones.

The staff started discussions on how to improve the program. In the early 1990s, staff members visited several well-known two-way programs, such as River Glen Elementary in nearby San Jose.

“It was like walking to the promised land,” said Jones. “Here were kids who were truly bilingual and biliterate.”

In 1993, Alianza began to implement a formal two-way-bilingual immersion program. The quality of the program is such that the school once again has a waiting list for kindergarten.

Jones, who has been at the school nine years, said a key value of the two-way immersion program is that it inherently involves a different orientation than transitional bilingual programs. “The primary concern of our staff is how our students are regarded,” Jones said. “When we looked at our program back then, we realized it was too much like transitional programs, which see Spanish speakers as someone who needs to be ‘fixed’ by learning English. Yet our students have a tremendous resource in their native language and culture. We want to respect that.”

Ruby Vasquez, the parent/community coordinator at the school, said the two-way approach positively affected the school’s relationship with parents. “It has really helped give the Spanish language status and empowered a whole group of parents that before had been silent.”

While the school is overwhelmingly Latino, that does not mean that these students are fluent in Spanish. Jones estimates that in first grade, about one-third of the students are what as known as Limited English Proficiency (LEP). About a third are bilingual, and a third are English dominant, usually because little Spanish is spoken in the home even if the families are Mexican or of Mexican heritage.

Alianza, like Starlight, adopted its model in part to ensure schoolwide consistency. In the past, the approach to teaching language varied from class to class, with insufficient schoolwide understanding of how best to teach a second language.

“The downfall in many bilingual programs is the lack of consistency,” said Teri Marchese, the staff development resource teacher at Alianza. The benefit of the two-way model Alianza currently follows “is that it structures language instruction. We now have two goals in each classroom: [academic] content and language acquisition,” she said.

“If you don’t have that consistently,” she added, “you can’t get results.”

Alianza follows what is sometimes called the 90/10 model in kindergarten, in which 90% of the instruction is in Spanish and 10% is in English. The English portion of the day is focused on language skills. By fifth/sixth grade, the Spanish and English portions of the day are equally split, 50/50. English instruction includes not only language and literacy skills, but math, science, fine arts, and gym. Spanish is used for Spanish literature and language, social science, fine arts, and gym.

One difficulty facing Alianza, which Starlight also noted, is that its students move frequently. (Watsonville sits at the northeast corner of the Great Central Valley of California, the heartland of California’s agricultural industry and the site of historic organizing battles by the United Farmworkers Union.) Last year, for example, one of its kindergarten students had already been to five schools before coming to Alianza in mid year. The school also has students who transfer in fourth and fifth grade.

“If it were an ideal world, we wouldn’t accept anyone after kindergarten,” said Jones. “Our goal is that, if we have a child in kindergarten and they stay with the school, they will read at grade level in both English and Spanish by the time they leave.”

Jones also said that, ideally, the school would have a 50/50 mix of English-dominant and Spanish-dominant speakers in kindergarten. But, he well realizes, schools rarely have the luxury of operating under ideal conditions.

“The biggest challenge is that we have a model that is from schools that are choice/magnet schools,” Jones said, noting that such schools are better able to select the student body to try to ensure the proper mix of English and non-English speaking students, and student mobility is far less. “We still believe that [two-way] model can work for us,” he said. “But we are tied to our community, and our community is like a river, ever-changing.”

[As Rethinking Schools went to press, Alianza was facing new challenges and opportunities. The district has decided that in the fall of 1999 it will open another neighborhood elementary school with a bilingual program. Alianza will become a districtwide choice school, maintaining both its charter status and its two-way immersion program. The superintendent strongly supports the changes, arguing that it will benefit the community to demonstrate the possibilities of a more “pure” two-way model.]

Growing Numbers

There is little doubt about the importance of winning the battle, however. Language-minority students are predicted to account for about 40% of the school-age population by the 2030s, according to researchers David Berliner and Bruce Biddle.

Some fear that such demographics will only intensify anti-bilingual and anti-immigrant sentiments. But others argue that one needs to take the long view, to develop innovative, quality bilingual programs and keep bilingual education alive until the political winds shift. The globalization that encourages corporations and armies to cross borders at will also spurs mass movements of people. Those demographics will win out in the end.

“You can’t stop the movement of people, history is clear about that,” argued Josue Gonzalez, director of the Center for Bilingual Education and Research at Arizona State University.

Gonzalez notes that 30 million people in this country speak Spanish, making it “the second national language of the United States, whether you proclaim it officially or not. … We have to recognize that our kids are growing up and living in a world that is very different from ours. We are disadvantaging them if we do not help them grow up biliterate.”

For more information on bilingual education, the best single source is the Language Policy Website of James Crawford, who has written extensively on language issues. The website is: