Minerva Espejo remembered her own rocky start in English after moving from Mexico to San Diego as a teenager. English classes were bewildering; a bilingual class taught by a teacher who barely understood Spanish was even worse. She improved her English at home by pulling out a dictionary night after night to pick up the vocabulary that helped get her to college.
She didn’t want the same troubles for her children. Soured by her own experience, she rejected the idea of a bilingual class and enrolled her kids in a different program until she found out about Sherman Elementary, where kids spend half the day in English and half in Spanish. Her son, who just finished up first grade at Sherman, can explain his homework in English and read to his grandfather in Spanish.
“It’s no good to lose your Spanish and then have to take Spanish classes in high school,” Espejo said. She believes that her children shouldn’t have to give up one language to learn another.
A newly proposed policy would back up Espejo and her views, marking a turning point in thinking about bilingual education in San Diego Unified. Most English learners in the school district are taught mostly in English or placed temporarily in “sheltered” classes with limited help in their native language, meant to transition them to English. Bilingual classes devote more of the school day to a second language and are meant to make children biliterate: fluent and academically savvy in two languages rather than one.
But parents who want to put their child in bilingual classes say they have gotten mixed messages from principals and teachers on whether such classes are educationally acceptable or even legal under California law, reflecting a simmering debate over how best to teach English learners.
The new policy would firmly state that bilingual classes are an option — and a good one. The draft states that all students benefit from being multilingual and asserts that “home language and culture are valued resources that contribute to academic success.” Proponents say it could set the bedrock for the expansion and promotion of bilingual classes. Yet the policy gives few specifics. If the school board decides to go with the policy, the next question is what that will look like, and what resources it will take to make it happen.