In 2016, California voters overwhelmingly voted in favor of repealing Proposition 227, an 18-year-old law that severely restricted bilingual programs in favor of English immersion. Proposition 58 passed with 73.5% support, paving the way for a new era of multilingual education. This was a turning moment for California’s 1.2 million English learners (ELs), of whom 82% speak Spanish.The State Board of Education then passed the English Learner Roadmap Policyin July 2017 to provide guidance to local educational agencies (LEAs) in order to welcome, understand, and educate the diverse population of students who are ELs attending California public schools. On May 16, UnidosUS hosted an education forum “Policy to Practice: Serving California’s English Learners,” in Stockton, California to familiarize educators and advocates with the EL Roadmap and share best practices for teaching ELs in early education and K-12.
“Why a roadmap?” said UnidosUS’s California Education Organizer Genesie Muñoz. “We’re all on the road of continuous improvement and the California EL Roadmap is a map to get there.”
Under Proposition 227, students considered to be Limited English Proficient (LEP) were separated from their peers into special, English classes aimed at bringing them up to speed within a school year. Civil rights activists criticized it for segregating ELs, slowing their overall academic achievement, and devaluing their native languages.
Ultimately, the advocacy efforts of civil rights groups turned the tide by educating the public about the benefits of multilingual education and pushing for more explicit wording about the measure on the ballot.
“How you phrase the question is how you’re going to get your response,” Elena Fajardo, Administrator of the Language Policy and Leadership Office, California Department of Education, told the audience during her keynote address. “In the past, with 227 it was ‘don’t you want students to learn English?’ And this time it was ‘don’t you believe Californians should have multilingual opportunities to do better financially and compete globally?’”
She also noted that Proposition 58 passed overwhelmingly in every county of the state, adding, “We have a lot of people who are multilingual out there voting.”
Two years after the historic vote, UnidosUS and its Affiliates continue to ensure the implementation of the multilingual policy is working as well as proponents and voters hoped.
“The goal is really to bridge the gap between what’s happening on the ground with the front-facing work that all of you are doing and ensuring that we’re having a consistent narrative with policymakers so that they’re hearing what needs to be done and they’re not just putting finger to wind and guessing,” said UnidosUS California Policy Strategist Alicia Lewis.
ELs and the Civil Rights Movement
For UnidosUS, California’s EL Roadmap is an important sign of progress in a decades-long struggle to recognize multilingual support as an integral part of equity in education, noted Amalia Chamorro, UnidosUS’s Associate Director of Education Policy. To underline its importance, she presented the audience with a timeline of major civil rights legislation and court decisions impacting ELs. She added, for example that the Bilingual Education Act of 1968 marked the first time Congress put money behind bilingual instruction. But this type of instruction wasn’t mandatory, and funds were limited, so ultimately only 100,000 out of about five million ELs in America were served.
In 1974, a group of Chinese parents in California successfully sued the San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD) for not attempting to provide supplemental language instruction to their EL children. Lau v. Nichols went all the way to the Supreme Court, where Justices unanimously sided with the parents, ruling that SFUSD had failed to provide a meaningful education to its EL students by not attempting to provide them with supplemental language instruction, meaning that they were in violation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
“It’s so important to have good legal precedence, to be able to open the door and remove those barriers. This really made education equity for all students, regardless of whether they were proficient in English a major statement. This was a major achievement and a major victory for ELs everywhere,” said Chamorro.
Chamorro, a Gen-Xer, also reflected on her own journey into civil rights awareness. Growing up in California’s Central Valley as the daughter of Peruvian immigrants, Chamorro says Proposition 227’s passing prompted her to see herself as part of a larger civil rights struggle.
“That was my woke moment,” said Chamorro, who was in college at the time. “I thought I got to UCLA on my own merit and my extracurricular activities, but then Prop 227 passed and I felt like maybe people didn’t want me to get an education. Before that, I hadn’t necessarily felt discriminated against, or maybe I didn’t realize what it was at a young age, because I remember as an EL being placed into lower level classes and my parents would have to go and talk to the principal to test me and put me in the more advanced classes.’”
Arizona Could Be Next
UnidosUS event organizers noted that a similar historic battle is now underway in neighboring Arizona. Currently, the state requires Structured English Immersion for ELs, removing them from their other classmates and disengaging them from other academic coursework. Civil rights advocates believe that practice is reflected in the 18% graduation rate among Arizona’s ELs. To combat it, UnidosUS sponsored HCR 2026 this legislative session to place a referendum on Proposition 203 (Arizona’s version of Prop 227) on the November 2020 ballot.
UnidosUS and Helios Education Foundation also commissioned a poll this spring showing 60% of voters support dual language. If the repeal goes through, the California EL Roadmap could serve as an important reference. In the meantime, its vision of a population prepared to engage a global market and global society serves as an inspiration to the cause.
“Our language and our culture are an asset,” said UnidosUS’s Arizona Education Organizer Ylenia Aguilar, noting that being bilingual and biliterate opened professional doors. “I was someone who interprets for her parents at a young age, then I became an interpreter and translator professionally.”
Ideas and Innovation, Policy to Practice
During the latter half of the summit, education leaders discussed some of the work they’re doing to ensure California’s educators, students, and parents are supported in their EL experience.
Feliza Ortiz-Licon, Senior Director of UnidosUS’s K-12 Education Programs, introduced these leaders with a group activity—what was the first word you learned? She said the first word she remembers reading and pronouncing out loud in English was “beer.”
“That’s because I grew up as an EL, the daughter of immigrants. I grew up in the neglected side of town where billboards advertising beer was the norm,” she explained. “When we’re talking about ELs, we’re not just talking about kids that speak a language other than English. Sometimes we’re talking about students that come from low-income communities, sometimes we’re talking about children that are immigrants or the children of immigrants, and that matters because the way we serve ELs or do not serve them have to do with the way people value or do not value them.”
For, Claudia Vizcaya, communications director for the statewide English learner advocacy organization Californians Together, this has meant generating adialogue on social media through the Alas y Voz campaign.
“We have to do more than promote bilingualism. Parents can’t find bilingual programs in their communities, so we really have to talk about what it means to be biliterate,” said Vizcaya. One way to engage them is through mass media, and she illustrated this by screening a student-produced video depicting the daily struggles of families where one child might speak more English than Spanish and the communication challenges they experience with their parents.
But moving new policies from statehouse to schoolroom require a lot of careful reflection, one that can benefit by drawing from past experience. With this in mind, UnidosUS gathered education advocates and practioners to speak about California-based programs working to close the achievement gap for Els.
“The policy context in California is quite aspirational and visionary. It’s a full pendulum swing from 20 years ago,” said Dr. Anya Hurwitz, Executive Director of SEAL, Sobrato Early Academic Language Model. “It’s a ripe policy context, and if we aren’t able to able to actualize our classrooms and our practice within this context, we miss a really important opportunity, and it’s worrisome what might happen.”
She noted that 60% of California children aged one to five are dual language learners, and thus an emphasis on early learning could be key to producing higher academic outcomes at the K-12 level. And at that age, learning absolutely must be fun and engaging.
“We cannot get to these higher levels of achievement without having joyful learning, joyful learners, and joyful educators,” she said, noting that California is at the forefront defining language development and language arts as content knowledge. But she added, “if you ask teachers on a day-to-day basis whether they feel they have the resources or the knowledge of this framework to enact it, the answers are often not what we want to hear.”
Joyful and rigorous are some of the adjectives Dr. Heather McManus, Chief Learning Officer for Los Angeles’ Camino Nuevo Charter Academy described the legacy of her school. It was founded in 2001 to give the children of low-income, mostly immigrant families a higher quality education, one where parents were invited to participate, not just drop their children at the door and leave. One of the most important initiatives was to create a dual language program.
“It was not the gentrified thing to do at the time,” said McManus, noting that while the No Child Left Behind Act acknowledged that subgroup performance matters, it mostly focused on reading, writing, and math, but not on science, social studies, and access to the arts. Camino Nuevo, an UnidosUS Affiliate, decided to develop fun, culturally relevant programming in all of these subjects, and as it did, it expanded its reach to eight schools, 36,000 students from pre-K through 12th grade, providing its graduating class with a total of $300,000 in college scholarships.
How the 2020 Census Plays a Role in Public Education
Be they ELs, people of color, children, or all of the above, understanding who the most vulnerable students are comes through one major form of data collection—the U.S. Census. Every 10 years it attempts to gather demographic information on every person residing in the United States, and with this information, governmental and non-governmental groups can better allocate resources for schools, hospitals, and other social services.
The concept of government data collection has often caused fear in immigrant and other marginalized communities, and more so this past year as the Trump administration is pushing to add a citizenship question on the form. But two representatives of NALEO, The National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, joined the forum to discuss the benefits of Census 2020 participation.
The organization is launching two campaigns to ensure that every single person receives education about the Census and can thus have a better chance of being counted. The adult program, Hagase Contar (Be Counted) will help Latinos recognize their rights—that their personal information is entirely confidential and will not be shared with government agencies—and understand how the demographic information helps to provide some $700 billion funding for a wide range of services, including educational ones such as Title I Schools, bilingual and special education.
“Census data are the basis of our representative democracy,” said Cristina Camacho, NALEO’s Central Valley Regional Campaigns manager, adding that the government also uses Census data to know how many politicians each state should send to the House of Representatives.
But during previous Census collection, many families, especially immigrant ones, did not realize that they should count their smallest children, which then impacts the amount of resources available for early childhood education programs or subsidized school breakfasts and lunches program. As a result, NALEO has launched a parallel campaign titled ¡Hazme Contar! (Make Me Count) aimed at helping educators teach children about the Census or discuss it with their families during parent-engagement activities.
In addition to covering the basics, i.e. health, housing, and education, this data and the funding it brings can “enable social and cultural competency to flourish by acknowledging and supporting programs that help individuals actively participate in our democracy and become civic advocates,” noted Rebecca Rodriguez, Naleo’s deputy director for children-focused Census Programs.
Reflections from Stockton Students
From ELs to civic engagement campaigns, none of the concerns and opportunities presented during the conference were lost on a group of about 11 local high school students participate in community outreach programs through UnidosUS Affiliate and hosting organization El Concilio. They attended the event on behalf of ELs in their community since some schools have yet to implement a full bilingual program.
“My cousins just came from Mexico and they go to my school. My parents are their guardians, so I see how us not having a program in our school for ELs is affecting them,” said
Teresa Renteria, 17. “One is a sophomore, going to be a junior next year. He doesn’t understand many questions, and he’s going to take important tests such as the SAT and ACT.”
“I’ve seen how ELs sometimes are afraid to speak their native language because of how they’ll be out in public and someone will hear them speaking Spanish and say ‘this is America, speak English,’” said Vanessa Delgado, 17. “I feel like that’s the fear that they have and going to schools that don’t have a program aren’t preparing them for that type of environment. They’re more exposed, when they should have people saying ‘we’re here for you.’”
For information on California’s English Learner Roadmap, click here.