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LA’s lawmaker LUZ RIVAS fights for bilingual learners

Latino California lawmakers like Luz Rivas believe students thrive when native languages are maintained along with English.

In the late 1970s, when Assemblywoman Luz Rivas was in elementary school in Los Angeles, she was punished by a teacher for speaking Spanish at school. 

Today, Rivas is the co-author of a new law that supports dual language students in California. 

To cater to the unique needs of dual language learners, AB 1363 requires California State Preschool Programs to perform a Family Language Instrument survey at enrollment, and a deeper Family Language and Interest Interview conducted by designated staff. 

Rivas, whose office serves northeast San Fernando Valley district, said the law takes the first step in executing Gov. Gavin Newsom’s Master Plan for Early Learning and Care: California for All Kids, including supporting dual language learner recommendations. The plan provides cost-free universal preschool, helps eligible families access subsidized child care, extends paid family leave and creates a new system to collect information about dual language learners in publicly-funded early learning programs.

“This issue is very personal to me,” Rivas said. “That’s why I was so proud we’ve come this far. We’re not going to be telling four-year-olds in state preschools that speaking another language is bad.”

Gov. Newsom signed AB-1363 Preschool Dual Language Learners in October, which develops procedures for providers to identify and report data on dual language learners. According to Rivas, collected data will enhance dual language learner’s academic experience by providing detailed information about how dual language learners are distributed across State Preschool Programs. 

These changes will allow policymakers to understand where to direct state resources, such as funding to support the creation and expansion of dual immersion preschool programs. Rivas said that providing data on at-home languages of dual language learners may help the state and local providers ensure that preschool classrooms are equipped with sufficient classroom materials to support home language and English development.

Rivas said collecting data from program staff about the needs of dual language learners and the desires of their families to support the development of both their languages, helps school officials create program practices and plan for resources and develop instructional strategies. 

Also, the information will be used to create and promote culturally responsive environments so children feel a sense of belonging and support.

Rivas said that more reforms may come.

“I know that there are other legislators that are working on expanding dual-immersion [programs] in the future,” she said.

Sen. Monique Limón (D-Santa Barbara), alongside Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond, is seeking to advocate for staff resources, strategic planning and materials to implement dual language immersion programs with SB 952, according to a spokesperson for Thurmond’s office. The proposed bill would expand dual-language immersion programs in pre-K, transitional kindergarten and K-12, ensuring both native English speakers and English learners participate in both English and another desired language to develop linguistic proficiency and academic achievement in both languages.

Rivas said this dual-language learners legislation would help aggregate acquired data to identify different levels of English proficiency amongst the long-term English language learners, ultimately maximizing their learning potential and overall academic achievements. 

Dual language education can lead to higher cognitive function, better grades, improved language proficiency, higher graduation rates and higher college enrollment for all students, according to a 2020 California for All Kids policy brief. California for All Kids campaign is an initiative by First Partner of California Jennifer Siebel Newsom, which helps build a solid learning foundation and overall health and well-being.

In addition, English-learner students who enroll in bilingual education programs — especially dual language immersion programs — outperform the academic achievement of English-only students by the time they reach high school, according to the Department of Education. 

Bilingual education is an umbrella term for the various types of programs for instruction using two languages. Dual Language education is a suitable approach, according to the state department, introduced in California schools to develop language proficiency and literacy in English and another language.

Rivas said that Latinx parents may have opposed bilingual schooling in the past because they were in a new country and were trying to follow the rules of living in the United States. 

“My family comes from Mexico,” she said. “My mom was always like, ‘Teachers know best, you follow their rules.’ That’s how she grew up.”

Rivas also says it was not long ago when educational leaders viewed English learners as an inconvenience.

In 1998, when Californians passed Proposition 227, the new law altered school curriculums and eliminated bilingual education for Limited English Proficient (LEP) students, causing a disadvantage in learning other academic subjects.

A case study titled “The Education of English Learners in California Following the Passage of Proposition 227,” showed that curriculum changes due to the proposition resulted in environments in which English learners were not receiving the same level of instruction as their native English-speaking peers.

Dr. Amanda Matas, lecturer in the Department of Dual Language and English Learner Education at San Diego State University, and Dr. James L. Rodríguez, former Professor of Child and Adolescent Studies at Cal State Fullerton, conducted the study to illustrate the impact of implementation at the district level. 

The study found that the subsequent reduction in the number of primary language classes offered in many districts denied students access to lessons that would supply background learning and comprehensible input essential to achieving the crucial academic skills in attaining successful education.  

Placing Spanish-speaking students in English-only instruction didn’t allow them to learn other subjects efficiently while concurrently learning English, according to the case study. Therefore, many found themselves behind their native English-speaking counterparts, specifically in content area courses.

Lizette Arevalo, a Chicanx studies professor at Rio Hondo College In Whittier, said she painfully recalls what it’s like to come of age in English-only schools during the 1990s amid the backdrop of Prop. 227. She clearly remembers the day in fifth grade when a teacher forced her to stand and face a brick wall as punishment for speaking Spanish. 

“That is when Prop. 227 hit, and all my classes had to be in English only,” Arevalo said. “It was a huge shock for me growing up being in classrooms where I was learning in Spanish, and then boom, English only.”

Arevalo recalls her teacher asking students who identified as Spanish speakers to raise their hands. Several kids, herself included, enthusiastically raised their hands, except one little girl who shook her head ‘no’ as Arevalo signaled her to join them.

“She understood what was going to happen,” Arevalo said. “From then on, every morning, the brown kids would be taken away and literally segregated to the corner of the classroom with the teaching assistant.”  

In 2016, nearly 20 years after prop. 227 passed, voters sought a new direction and passed Proposition 58, which repealed Proposition 227’s English-only requirements and provided schools the option to create dual-language immersion programs for both fluent English speakers and English learners.

“We had a phenomenal coalition behind the bill that covered many different areas of the educational sector in California,” Rivas said. “They testified for the bill, promoted the bill as something that California should do. I think it was just very important work that they did in helping make sure that this got down to the governor’s desk and that it was signed.”

Advocacy organization Early Edge California works collaboratively to encourage policy reforms and funding in California’s Early Learning system and quality early education. The advocacy group was a co-sponsor of the new law.

Carolyne Crolotte, Director of Dual Language Learner Programs, said that because 60% of children up to the age of 5 speak a language other than English at home, she hopes these laws eradicate any residual stigmas parents and educators may have about bilingualism. By pushing for this law, Crolotte said she expects schools to inform parents and students about the benefits of retaining their at-home languages.

“We’ve also had the establishment of the state seal of bi-literacy, which means that upon high school graduation, students receive a seal on their diploma that identifies that they’re proficient in two or more languages,” Crolotte said. “That’s really helpful for job opportunities.” 

Liliana Ulloa

Liliana Ulloa Santos (They/Them) is a resilient mother of color. Multimedia Journalist. Makeup Artist. Founder of XicanaBoxing.com. Not necessarily an expert on any subject, but instead, serves as a human...