In a fourth grade class at Buena Vista Horace Mann in the Mission district, the school’s ten-year-olds are learning Common Core math. They’re practicing multiplying double-digit numbers. But it’s not in the way you’d think, because they’re learning it entirely in Spanish. This year, California voters will be able to decide if programs like this can be started elsewhere, with the passage of Proposition 58.
“I think what Prop 58 does is it really brings back the value of bilingualism,” says Christina Wong, a multilingual pathways director at San Francisco Unified.
In 1998 a state proposition slowed the growth of bilingual education programs in California. Public school classes had to be taught in English only, even to English Language Learners. But a statewide measure on the November ballot lets voters choose to reverse that law. Proposition 58 would allow schools to teach classes bilingually, instead of only in English.
“Sometimes our English Language Learners, unfortunately, would only think that they didn’t understand the problem, just because they didn’t understand the language,” says Frank Lara, a math teacher at Buena Vista Horace Mann. “And that’s a problem because they actually did understand the problem, they just didn’t know how to communicate it.”
Founded nearly 20 years ago, Buena Vista is one of San Francisco’s first and longest running Spanish immersion programs. Half of the students speak English, and half speak Spanish at home.
“The model starts with 90 percent Spanish in the lower grades, Kindergarten, and starts moving into 50 percent English and Spanish as they move to fifth, sixth grade, and middle school,” Lara says.
By the time they graduate, students should be fully fluent in both languages. But right now, schools like Buena Vista that teach core subjects bilingually aren’t allowed in most cities in California, mostly due to Prop 227, which restricts bilingual programs unless parents sign a waiver every year - like they do at Buena Vista.
In some ways, Prop 227 has made it harder for districts to start new bilingual programs and offer bilingual classes.
As a result, less than five percent of California’s public schools offer multilingual programs, even though one in four of these students is an English Language Learner.
Ron Unz, a businessman, was the co-author of Prop 227 back in 1998. He explained that he believed English-only education was the best way to teach students who were not native English speakers.
“Teaching children English is the way for them to learn English,” Unz said in an interview with the Associated Press in 1998. “Teaching children in a Spanish-only environment ... is not the way to teach them English. I think the Latino population in California will advance tremendously because of the passage of this initiative.”
But that’s not what educators are saying in 2016. Prop 58 has racked up over 4 million dollars in support from teachers unions across the state. According to education advocacy group Ed Trust West, out of the state’s 1.4 million English Language Learners, less than 15 percent are proficient in English or Math.
“If we go at the current rate, all California English learners won’t meet college standards in my lifetime or any of our lifetimes,” Ryan Smith, executive director of Ed Trust West says. “And that’s a cause for concern, this should really be a cause for action to support the future of California.”
He also said that for English speaking families, there’s a renewed interest in bilingual language programs.
“The research shows that students who participate in multilingual programs attain high levels of academic achievement,” Smith said. “We also see that two-thirds of all employers prefer to hire a bilingual employee over a monolingual employee, which shows this isn’t just a moral imperative for the state, it’s also an economic imperative as well.”
But critics, like the state Republican and Libertarian Party, felt that learning English was a key part of assimilation. Some Libertarians worry not prioritizing English could reinforce racial segregation.
“I think it really does tend to end up segregating people,” Starchild, the outreach director for the San Francisco Libertarian Party said. “I think students will be better integrated and better accepted by the rest of society, you won’t have 'over there' in a special program where it’s easy to 'otherize' them.” Other critics think that bilingual education will make it harder to standardize tests.
But for teachers like Buena Vista’s Frank Lara, allowing bilingual education is also about welcoming students of different backgrounds. Learning multiplication is hard enough, and it can be harder if you can’t talk to the teacher.
“It’s a sense of empowerment, to express themselves and be validated as people and their culture; that their thinking counts,” Lara said.
In one of the nation’s most diverse states, voters will soon decide if California schools should embrace being bilingual, or keep things the way they are.