San Francisco’s Multilingual Schools Could Forge Path if California Measure Succeeds


At Fairmount Elementary School in Glen Park, librarian Maureen Sullivan conducts classes in Spanish and English. Photo by Nadia Mishkin / San Francisco Public Press

Should California embrace multilingualism as a goal for its children — or recommit itself to an English-only policy that goes back almost two decades? That is the question at the heart of Proposition 58, called the “Multilingual Education Act” by supporters, which goes to the voters on Nov. 8.

There is at least one city in California where the measure is not controversial: San Francisco. In August, the city’s Board of Education unanimously passed a resolution supporting 58, with no one from the public speaking against it. Statewide, the California Teachers Association and other labor organizations have raised about $4.4 million to promote Proposition 58. Opponents — the California Republican and Libertarian parties — have raised nothing to date.

If it passes, as seems likely, according to a September Field Poll, Proposition 58 would reverse a measure that voters in 1998 approved overwhelmingly — 61 percent to 39 percent. The older measure, Proposition 227, mandated that the state’s schools focus on making immigrant children proficient in English at the expense of their home languages, pushing them into English-only classes after no more than one year.

At the time the San Francisco Unified School District responded to Proposition 227 by changing the names of its programs and expanding language offerings — especially those that put immigrants with native-born kids in the same classroom to learn two languages at the same time. Today, thousands of students are learning English alongside Spanish, Mandarin, Cantonese or Korean in dual-language immersion programs.

The result? According to academic studies and California Department of Education data, English-language learners are more likely to be reclassified as proficient in San Francisco Unified than in districts of similar size and composition. Over time, their academic achievement tends to be greater than that of immigrants in other kinds of programs, including those pushed into English immersion. But more than that, San Francisco seems to succeed in producing more multilingual students, both immigrant and native-born.

If California goes the way of San Francisco — creating more dual-language immersion programs and reviving bilingual education for immigrants — it would not just signal a dramatic change in education policy. It would also symbolize a massive cultural shift in the state.

“What Prop 227 said was that it’s not important for you to maintain your heritage language,” said Christina Mei-Yue Wong, who oversees the district’s language pathways.  “Prop 58 really releases all of that and breaks down all those barriers.”

The timing of Proposition 58 could not be better for San Francisco Unified, because demand for language education is rising. Not because of increased immigration — in fact, the number of English-learners is slightly lower than it was when 227 passed. It’s because so many American-born parents want their children to learn another language.

“Knowing another language is really going to give students an edge in the world,” Wong said. “It’s a necessity and a pleasure. It’s something that they can be really proud of.”

The rise of dual-language immersion

Wong was an organizer in San Francisco’s Chinese community the year Proposition 227 passed. “At that time it was like, oh, wow, yet another anti-immigrant initiative,” she recalls. “We were really fearful that the rhetoric out there was so anti-immigrant.”

Ron Unz, the Silicon Valley entrepreneur and Republican activist who bankrolled Proposition 227, said that his measure was never intended to be anti-immigrant — and that he adamantly opposes 58.

“My views haven’t changed at all,” he said. Programs that provide instruction to immigrants in their first languages discourage English acquisition and cultural assimilation, Unz said, adding that as a result of efforts like his, “Bilingual programs largely disappeared throughout the United States.”

Programs labeled “bilingual” may have declined — but dual-language immersion and other pathways to bilingualism are flourishing. In 2000, there were an estimated 260 programs in the U.S., putting English learners in the same classrooms with native English speakers to learn two languages. While no one knows quite how many there are today, 39 states (and Washington, D.C.) offer dual-language programs. Recent estimates put the number of programs at over 2,000.

California has 312 of those schools. Twenty-seven are in San Francisco, which also has a similar number of schools that offer “biliteracy pathways” targeted only at English-learners. All of the district’s language pathways for English-learners aim to help them become  fluent in English, but the goal of dual-language programs is for students to become proficient in two languages.

When Proposition 227 passed, said Wong and other educators, many districts in California stopped offering dual-language immersion and support to English-learners. That was not the case in San Francisco. The district grappled with the new law by simply changing the names of its programs — from “bilingual” to “biliterate” or “dual-language immersion” — and requiring parents to sign waivers for children to enter them. The waivers were a provision of 227 that Unz explicitly described as a bureaucratic hurdle to discourage parents from sending their children to multilingual programs.

While the district does not have a discrete budget for the waivers, Wong said, they add significantly to staff workload and the district’s bureaucracy. Of the 15,000 students learning English in any given year, and about 10,000 need to sign waivers. This is often the result of intensive one-to-one outreach to immigrant parents, who need to hear their options in a system that is notoriously difficult for all parents to navigate.

If Proposition 58 passes, said Wong, its most immediate impact on San Francisco would be to eliminate the layer of bureaucracy created by the waiver system that 227 created.

But it would do something else, Wong suggested: open the door to more support from the state for multilingual education as well as collaboration with other districts in establishing statewide standards and sharing best-practices for creating a multilingual next generation. Seven states (including Utah, Washington and New Mexico) have specific policies to support dual-language education.

Because of Proposition 227, California does not. If the voters approve Proposition 58, that stands to change — and after almost two decades, districts like San Francisco Unified will get help in meeting demand for language education.

Parents push for dual-language immersion

Like many university-educated San Francisco parents, Alex Wise and Moira deNike have treated parenthood like a research project.

“We looked at the data that showed some real benefits to having a bilingual education at a young age,” Wise said. One 2012 study, for example, found that bilinguals are better at solving both word and math problems.

He and deNike also had a personal motivation: Both are multilingual, and she was one of the first students in the 1970s to be part of the Japanese Bilingual Bicultural Program, which today makes its home at Rosa Parks and Clarendon schools in San Francisco. Like Wise, she wanted her own daughter to learn another language — and she argued for Spanish. Today, their daughter is a fourth-grader at Fairmount Elementary, a dual-language immersion school in Glen Park.

Given the state’s demographics, she argues, “Being able to speak Spanish in California is part of helping to ensure a more seamless California, to have more cultural competency in a state that is increasingly Spanish-speaking.”

To Unz, that’s the problem.

In a series of essays published since Proposition 227 passed, Unz laid out a subtle case against a multilingual, multicultural California. In a 1999 essay for Commentary titled “California and the End of White America,” Unz wrote that the state’s future depended on its ability to assimilate immigrants into the dominant white, English-speaking culture. To not do so, he wrote, risks an identity-based backlash from whites. Seeming to anticipate Donald Trump’s campaign for president, which started with a call to build a wall between the U.S. and Mexico, he concluded: “There are few forces that could so easily break America as the coming of white nationalism.”

The campaign for 227 was careful to enlist Latino supporters dissatisfied with the state of bilingual education. Today Unz, who ran unsuccessfully for U.S. Senate as a Republican in the June primary, continues to argue that that it is immigrants who are hurt the most when schools try to preserve their home language and culture.

“The problem with these programs is that they don’t really help the Latino students learn English,” he said.

Unz is critical how most programs — as is the case at Fairmount — start with primarily the immigrant language and then gradually introduces more English. This, he said, is actually to the benefit of the native-born.

“Anglo parents want more dual-immersion programs, but I think what’s probably happening is that they want a copious supply of unpaid Spanish-language tutors to help their children learn Spanish,” Unz said, equating Latino children with “unpaid tutors.”

Diana Vasquez does not see it that way. She left Mexico in 2005 hoping that her children would have more educational opportunities — and at Fairmount Elementary, her two boys have already achieved fluency in English. Vasquez has not, but she is nonetheless bilingual, speaking Spanish as well as Tzeltal, an indigenous language of Chiapas.

To her, English-language fluency as one of her children’s “great accomplishments.” But she also values the formal instruction they receive in Spanish grammar, vocabulary and writing. “It’s better than what they would have gotten in Mexico,” she said. “This is the best thing that could have happened for them.”

To deNike, Vasquez’s two boys do indeed have a lot to teach her daughter.

“Part of what we hoped for was that putting our daughter in a school like Fairmount might teach her some cultural humility,” deNike said. “We are very happy that our child has a chance to learn another language in a public school setting, yes. But we are equally happy that it affords her the opportunity to meet peers with different experiences, and to recognize that the world is a lot bigger than our single country.”

Progress, but inequality persists

When Proposition 227 passed, even proponents of bilingual education admitted that their programs had much to be desired. At the time, the California Association of Bilingual Education found that less than 10 percent of the state’s programs were effective. When it came to outcomes like graduation rates and English proficiency, California seemed to be failing its immigrants.

Today, outcomes for immigrants vary wildly from district to district in the Bay Area. Among the five largest districts, San Francisco leads the way in the breadth and diversity of its programs, as well as the level of student achievement.

Three-quarters of San Francisco English-learners graduate, compared with 69 percent for the entire state of California and just half across the Bay in Oakland, the Bay Area district closest to San Francisco in size and demographic mix. Last year, 37 percent of San Francisco English-learners achieved proficiency in English, while in West Contra Costa that percentage is 29 and in San Jose 32 percent.

Seals of Biliteracy — approved in 21 states and the District of Columbia — are awarded to students who have mastered at least two languages. San Francisco was one of the first districts in California to start giving it to students, and last year 517 earned the award, 324 of whom were originally classified as English-learners. In Oakland, an only slightly smaller district, 65 students did. In Sacramento, also similar in size, 321 students received a seal, 126 of whom came to the district learning English.

These numbers, like any education statistics, cannot tell the whole story.

In her annual report to the San Francisco Board of Education, for example, Wong described how Cantonese, Mandarin, Filipino and Vietnamese speakers were much more likely than Latinos to be reclassified as proficient in English. Spanish speakers, who make up almost half of the student body, by far the largest language group, are also less likely to meet or exceed testing standards. This feeds significant academic achievement gaps among language groups within the district, one tightly linked with the education levels and financial resources of the parents.

Indeed, the gap in graduation rates between English-learners and everyone else is troubling. While the graduation rate for English-learners is well above the state average, it is still almost 15 points lower than for non-English-learners.

The impact of dual-language education

The research to date suggests that dual-language immersion might be the best way to address these gaps.

In 2014, two Stanford University researchers worked with the district to evaluate the impact of all its language pathways on immigrants. Using 12 years of data, Ilana Umansky and Sean F. Reardon found that immigrant students in San Francisco’s dual-language immersion and biliteracy programs were slower to be reclassified as fluent in English than students in English-only programs. This would seem to bolster the case against bilingual education.

However, the researchers found that over time, English fluency balanced out for the students. In fact, they found that Spanish-speaking students enrolled in dual-language programs ultimately achieved a higher level of English proficiency and academic success by end of high school than kids in other programs, including English-only immersion.

In addition, district data suggest that those who went through dual-language  programs were better able to retain their home language.

To succeed, Umansky said, districts need to offer a wide range of language pathways to students. “Opponents of bilingual education tend to lump them all together, but there’s a huge range of multilingual programs,” said Umansky, who is now at the University of Oregon. “One of the reasons why diversity exists is that programs should reflect the communities that they serve, and they should be responsive to the interests and values of families in the community.”

In lifting statewide restrictions on language teaching, Proposition 58 would allow California school districts to follow San Francisco’s lead in offering more customized programs to their families — which may create a whole new set of problems for districts to educators and parents to solve, say researchers and administrators.

Seeing language diversity as an asset

In September, Umansky published a new study looking at the effect of labeling students as “English-language learners,” based on data from an unidentified California school district with just over 18,000 English learners. She found the label had a net negative impact on student achievement. But the problem is not with the label. It is what the district does with it.

“When you’re labeled as an English-learner, a whole bunch of things happen to you,” she said.

On the positive side, students get more trained teachers and targeted instruction. But negative things can happen as well. They can land in English-immersion when they would benefit most from dual-language immersion. Or students can be tracked into classrooms where everyone speaks their home language and they are isolated from native English speakers. They can have teachers who have lower expectations. Or they can be labeled as having a learning disability when really they just need more instruction in their home languages. The most successful districts, Umansky said, avoid these pitfalls by, for example, mixing immigrants in with American-born kids and setting high expectations for all students.

Wong said it is crucial for districts to track student outcomes carefully and never stop learning about what works and what does not. “There’s not just one magic bullet and things are going to be fine,” Wong said. “People’s needs are always changing.”

Wong and Umansky agree that the most important thing a district can do is treat the home languages of immigrant students as a strength, not a weakness.

“We have kids entering education systems with enormous assets,” Umansky said. “But rather than cherish that asset, and strengthen it, and promote it, our schools devalue it, shame students for it, and take it away from them.”

To Umansky, that’s not just harmful to students.

“It’s harmful to our country. Bilingualism is beneficial for all of us — economically and politically,” she said. “We need to see bilingualism as a gem that we are protecting and cultivating.”

San Francisco Unified School District has a strong track record in promoting language education, despite an official statewide ban.
Diana Vasquez left Mexico in 2005. Now both her children are enrolled at Fairmount Elementary, a dual-language-immersion school in Glen Park. Photo by Nadia Mishkin / San Francisco Public Press
Alex Wise and Moira deNike sent their daughter to Fairmount Elementary in Glen Park to learn both Spanish and ‘cultural humility.’ Photo by Nadia Mishkin / San Francisco Public Press

Don't miss out on our newest articles, episodes and events!
Sign up for our newsletter

This article is part of an ongoing series on bilingual education in San Francisco and across the state. Funding for this project comes from California Humanities.

See also:  If Proposition 58 Passes, California Schools Might Not Be Prepared for Bilingual Ed, Oct., 20, 2016.