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Proposed state Senate bill seeks to remove prohibitions for school language immersion programs

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Jennie Lee
  • Mike Koozmin/The S.f. Examiner
  • West Portal Elementary School teacher Jennie Lee leads a Chinese immersion class Wednesday.
On Wednesday morning, 22 kindergarten and first-grade students filed into their classroom at West Portal Elementary School, stuffed their backpacks into their cubbies and plopped down on a blue rug displaying the ABC’s.

Teacher Jennie Lee promptly began speaking to the students in Cantonese, and she would continue to do so for the remainder of the day as part of the school’s language immersion program, one of more than a dozen offered in the San Francisco Unified School District.

What isn’t obvious inside the classroom is that the parents of students learning English as a second language were required to sign a waiver in order for their children to be enrolled in the program.

That process is part of what a state senator is hoping to change in his effort to repeal prohibitions to multilingual instruction enacted under Proposition 227, passed by California voters in 1998.

On Wednesday, Sen. Ricardo Lara, D-Long Beach, announced the California Education for a Global Economy initiative at a news conference outside West Portal Elementary, which in 1984 became the first elementary school in California to offer a two-way Chinese immersion program.

State Bill 1174, set to be heard before the Senate Education Committee on April 30, would give voters in 2016 the option to amend Prop. 227 and allow multilingual education in state schools without requiring parents to go through a waiver process.

SFUSD Superintendent Richard Carranza, teachers, parents and students spoke in support of the proposed legislation Wednesday morning. San Francisco’s language immersion efforts began four decades ago with the activism of Chinese parents in 1974 that led to the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision in which bilingual education programs for English learners were established.

Thirty-two percent of the school district’s 53,000 students are Chinese-American. Nearly 5,000 students are Cantonese-speaking English learners, while 500 students are Mandarin-speaking English learners. Additionally, more than 6,400 are Spanish-speaking English learners.

Students in the immersion programs learn in English, Cantonese, Mandarin and Spanish at different times of the day and in varying grade levels. Biliteracy programs have been introduced as a way to encourage proficiency in another language.

But parents say students who speak English as a first language benefit from immersion programs as well.

Sarah Beth Chionsini has two children who attend Alice Fong Yu Alternative School, the nation’s first Chinese immersion public school, which was established in 1995 by teachers from West Portal Elementary.

“I’ve seen firsthand how a multilingual education has helped my kids,” Chionsini said.

Another parent, Rennie Saunders, has an English-speaking son in second grade at Starr King Elementary, where the school district started its first Mandarin Immersion Pathway program five years ago.

Saunders recently tried to help his son with his homework, but his son quickly corrected him on his pronunciation of Mandarin words, Saunders said with a laugh.