- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 18, 2000

A record number of non-English-speaking students in the Los Angeles Unified School District have become fluent in English, prompting supporters of California's Proposition 227 initiative to claim victory.

Figures released earlier this month by the 690,000-student school system sued recently for failure to provide adequate services to its students show the highest annual increase in students achieving English fluency since the system began keeping data on their progress.

From December 1998 to December 1999, more than 32,000 of the state's 313,442 "English learners" were reclassified as fluent, according to the district's language acquisition branch.

"The results are positive and, I believe, cause for celebration," said Ramon Cortines, Los Angeles' interim superintendent of schools. "Particularly encouraging is the fact that the greatest increase is occurring before the students leave elementary school."

Two years ago, California voters approved Proposition 227, which mandated that state public schools teach non-English-speaking students primarily in English until they are fluent.

Fluency means a student can understand and complete lessons taught in English, the Los Angeles district says. The students are evaluated by teachers and must meet certain standards in reading, writing, listening and speaking before they are reclassified.

Of the students who have become fluent, more than 19,000 were in kindergarten through fifth grade, the district said. Forty percent of those who are now deemed fluent were in fifth grade. That, said Mr. Cortines, is crucial, because it means most of the newly fluent students will spend the majority of their school years in "mainstream" English classes taught at their appropriate grade levels.

Sheri Annis, spokeswoman for English for the Children, the California group led by entrepreneur Ron Unz that sponsored Proposition 227, said she was not surprised by the results.

"It's a no-brainer," she said of the Los Angeles school district's success. When students are taught only in English, "they learn the language, and therefore are able to succeed on the state's standardized tests."

"We see this as a positive step toward full implementation of English immersion programs as called for under Prop 227," she said.

Before the English-only initiative was passed by California voters, bilingual programs permeated the Los Angeles school district, the state's largest. Limited-English-speaking children made up 45 percent of the student population, Miss Annis said.

"Now we're seeing that certain classrooms are switching over and at least defaulting toward English, rather than Spanish. This accounts for the stronger transition rate to mainstream English classrooms," she said.

Other school systems, particularly those in the San Francisco area but many sprinkled throughout the state, have been slow to follow through on Proposition 227's provisions, which Miss Annis believes will hurt children in the long term. If students are speaking Spanish at home, for example, schools ought to teach them English because they cannot get those skills from their families, she said.

Children who become fluent ultimately will benefit "because they will be able to compete on their SAT scores and simply get a better-paying job, and have much more opportunity in general."

The school system has focused its efforts on training more teachers to effectively instruct non-English-speaking students, and has implemented other measures designed to reduce class size and improve reading skills.

While Miss Annis was hopeful, proponents of Proposition 227 said it was likely too soon to gauge whether the law should receive sole credit for the turnaround in Los Angeles.

Proponents, however, conceded that the news in Los Angeles was encouraging and perhaps a sign that students whose native language was not English would not be hurt by English immersion, as they had argued when the law was before voters.

"Of course I think it's positive that scores didn't crash, but is it really working? It's too soon to tell," Theresa Fay-Bustillos, vice president of legal programs for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, told the Los Angeles Daily News.

Her group opposed Proposition 227.

Mrs. Fay-Bustillos questioned whether students would be able to use their newly acquired language skills as they move into more difficult course work in the higher grades.

"What you're going to witness in a classroom is verbal fluency," she told the Daily News. "But that's not the same as literacy."

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