On March 1, nine years after state officials first began requiring bilingual education for children who speak another language more fluently than they speak English, the California State Education Code finally caught up with Franklin Elementary School.

Spurred by an Oakland parents' lawsuit demanding improved bilingual classes citywide, a judge ordered the city's schools into compliance with the state guidelines that map out the largest bilingual education effort in the nation. In California, if an elementary school has one grade with at least 10 limited-English students from a particular language group, the school has to offer a bilingual class just for them.

Inside Franklin, which sits in the midst of inexpensive rental housing that attracts new immigrants, 14 languages are spoken in the course of a normal school day. According to state regulations, the school was supposed to offer bilingual classes in Cantonese, Spanish, Vietnamese, Laotian, the Cambodian language Khmer and the Ethiopian language Tigrinya.

So this is what happened at Franklin:

Priscilla McClendon, a fifth-grade teacher who jokes that she finds challenge aplenty in just mastering English, was assigned a group of fourth- and fifth-grade Cambodians and told to promise in writing that she would learn Khmer.

Francesca Ferrari was assigned a collection of first- to third-grade Ethiopians and told to promise in writing that she would learn Tigrinya. Since state law requires at least one-third of the children in a bilingual class to be native English speakers, she got some of those, too -- eight black American children and one Hispanic girl whose mother had just pulled her out of a Spanish bilingual class because she thought her daughter wasn't learning enough English.

Pat Eimerl lost her Cambodian-Vietnamese-Ethiopian-Thai-Hispanic sixth grade, which on the books had been labeled a Cambodian bilingual class, since Eimerl had earlier promised in writing to learn Khmer. Her new students, all of whom filed in one afternoon carrying the contents of their former desks, are Cantonese-speaking Vietnamese. Eimerl was told to promise she would learn Cantonese, since this was now supposed to be a Chinese bilingual class, but for weeks she refused to sign the promise.

"See, with Cambodian I'm safe, because there aren't any classes," Eimerl said (she meant language classes for teachers) on the morning of the class shift. She was standing in the hallway, watching 11-year-old Asian boys wander back and forth in search of the right classrooms, and she was so angry her voice shook. "But there are Chinese classes. I've got three kids. I'm 40 years old. I'm not about to go try to learn Chinese." 'Who's Being Served?'

Ten years ago, when federal officials began thei unprecedented push for bilingual education in public schools across the country, grand hopes and promising research armed them against their critics. High school dropout rates for Hispanics were far higher than those for white students, they observed; here, they argued, was a possible remedy. Theory and their own convictions convinced them that students who learned at least part time in their native language had a much better chance in the schools: they would keep up academically, they would maintain their self-esteem, and they might in the end become literate and articulate in two languages.

A decade later, with half a million children enrolled in what their schools describe as bilingual programs, much of the whole enterprise has dismayed both its longtime critics and some of the people who most ardently believe in bilingual education. National Hispanic high school dropout rates, although not reliably monitored, are as high as ever: just under 40 percent, according to estimates by the Washington-based National Hispanic Policy Development Project. Teachers from San Francisco to Providence can be heard complaining that bilingual classes hold students back or keep them away from English. A U.S. Department of Education study, published in 1983 to vehement criticism from many bilingual educators, found "no consistent evidence" that dual-language instruction improved students' academic progress.

And bilingual advocates say schools are slapping the "bilingual" label on classes that have almost nothing to do with dual-language teaching. They also say that because some states don't require bilingual education and some schools ignore their own state requirements, more than three-quarters of the limited-English-speaking children in this country are receiving no dual-language instruction at all.

"What's going on in 90 percent of the classrooms in this country is a joke in respect to what bilingual education ought to be," said Duane Campbell, a Spanish-English bilingual teacher who now works in the bilingual teacher training program at California State University at Sacramento. "And if you're going to tell me that doesn't work, I'll agree with you. It doesn't work."

Campbell, an Iowa-born Anglo, sounds a little more embittered than many of his colleagues. Franklin is in more linguistic turmoil than most neighborhood schools. But a Washington Post inquiry into public school bilingual education found similar heat and frustration among teachers, parents, administrators and researchers -- many of whom are still at odds about the classroom efforts public schools are calling bilingual education.

There is nothing simple about this. Like many broad public school programs, the term "bilingual education" covers such vast territory -- gifted teachers and dreadful teachers, imaginative new workshops and rote learning in overcrowded classrooms -- that it defies the kind of generalizations people seem to want when such a controversial idea is proposed as public policy. So complex is the argument that critics and advocates cannot even agree on how many children in this country come to school with what the jargon calls "limited English proficiency"; the estimates range from 1.5 million to 3.5 million.

But a look at the problems in this massive undertaking, the business of helping immigrant schoolchildren in their own language, might begin at Franklin Elementary, or Franklin Year-Round, as the school is now officially named: its side-by-side buildings now hold children in a schedule that has eliminated the summer break. Down the long hallways, the bulletin boards all acolor with spring tulips and construction paper Humpty-Dumptys, doorways frame bright classrooms crowded desk to desk with the children of the new immigration. Phumpuang Phaisan, Khadihaj Muhammed, Phonevil Pomsouvanh, Kai-Phong Mack, Alejandro Esparza -- the names, in careful block lettering, fill pink and green class lists on the desk of Franklin's harried bilingual coordinator, and next to each name the numerical code for the language the child brought to school: Khmer, Tigrinya, Laotian, Cantonese, Spanish.

"If you figure just the amount of time, money and education disruption . . . the fact that English speakers have zero rights . . . this has been costly as hell," said Martha Muller, the coordinator who for the last three months has been shuffling and reshuffling names into lists that will comply with California state education laws. "The law is not meant for this kind of school. It is meant for a nice, neat, orderly Spanish-English population, or a Chinese-English population, or something. But it's not meant for a multilanguage school."

"Now that we're in compliance, it's just as ridiculous as when we were out of compliance," said Michael Phillips, who teaches his combined fourth- and fifth-grade class in both English and the Vietnamese he learned in preparation for a year's special military assignment in Vietnam. "So all my English-speaking kids have to sit there and wait while I'm translating for the Vietnamese. Now who's being served there?"

As chaotic as it is at this school, with nearly every morning bringing new immigrants to the front office to enroll their children, bilingual education at Franklin is in some of the same trouble that has plagued schools across the country for the last decade. It begins with California state law -- a law, similar to those in some of the 22 states that mandate or permit bilingual classes, that lays out the number of speakers of any single language that is supposed to trigger a bilingual class.

It was violations of that requirement, among many other complaints, that moved a group of Oakland parents last fall to bring what turned into a bitterly argued lawsuit that accused the city school board of causing "irreparable injury" to thousands of students by failing to offer them bilingual classes. The documentation listed Franklin as one of the worst offenders: the school was missing teachers or aides in five languages, including Laotian and Tigrinya.

How does a school find candidates for a job like that? School officials actually interviewed a few people, Franklin principal Jay Cleckner said, although lawyers for the parents' group insisted Oakland had done far too little recruiting and hiring. But almost nobody qualified as an American classroom teacher, Cleckner said. And if a few spoke English well enough to work as classroom aides, he said, he could not keep them in part-time jobs that paid about $5 an hour and offered no benefits. "I have interviewed for aides and for teachers, people who are very qualified," Clecker said. "But they can go back to work for four times what I can pay them, and I tell them, 'Go. Take care of yourself.' "

The national shortage of qualified teachers has for some years been one of bilingual education's major problems. There is not a single Khmer- or Hmong-speaking credentialed teacher in California, which has the nation's highest numbers of refugees from Cambodia and the part of Laos that was home to the Hmong people. Even qualified teachers who speak fluent Spanish are in short supply in many states; when Houston bilingual administrator Delia Pompa was presented this year with the revised Texas mandates for bilingual education through fifth grade, she calculated that even with extensive recruiting and $1,500 bonuses for the mostly Spanish-speaking dual-language teachers, conventional teaching patterns were going to leave the district short 400 teachers qualified to work in two languages.

"Before, when Hispanics went to college, they went into teaching," said Pompa, who plans to accommodate the shortage by classroom rearrangements like teacher pairing. "Hispanics are starting to go into other professions . . . Teaching, and education in general, is going through a low period. Teaching isn't looked at as a real respected profession. You're looking at a lot of problems."

Hardly anybody seriously expects Franklin's elementary school teachers to learn Khmer or Laotian in their spare time. But one of the ways many areas have adapted to the shortage is by asking teachers to sign up for courses in languages that seem more manageable to learn. In California, state figures show that fully half the "bilingual" teachers are regular teachers who have pledged to learn dual-language teaching methods and become fluent in a second language (usually Spanish, but occasionally English) while a bilingual aide helps them with the children.

That leads to a whole new set of problems. How well those teachers are actually learning both the language and the complicated business of dual-language teaching varies wildly from school to school, particularly since many principals are dubious about the idea to begin with. One elementary school will house an after-hours class for teachers genuinely committed to learning Spanish, and usually doing so on their own time; a second will sign up "bilingual" teachers who plainly have little interest in ever learning more than a few words of the language. Even when they do try, bilingual advocates sometimes wonder what comes of their efforts: a Hispanic attorney tells of the newly trained Texas teacher who stood before a parents' group and began, "Damas y caballos," which is a salutation of sorts; it means "Ladies and horses."

And the proceedings inside the dual-language class are only as effective as the teacher who runs it. In visits this spring to more than 20 bilingual classrooms, a reporter watched one bilingual teacher review long division in English scarcely intelligible through his Spanish accent, and another teacher who spoke no Spanish and left all the Spanish business to an aide she clearly distrusted: "I don't even think she's graduated from high school," the teacher confided.

Here were teachers translating right through history and arithmetic lessons, despite linguists' warnings that simultaneous translation is the least effective bilingual teaching method because it lets the student listen to the language he knows best. Here were teachers frustrated by school systems that hurried children into full-time English so fast that, as the teachers saw it, some of the point of bilingual education was being lost -- the idea that children's English work will be stronger and more confident if they are allowed to fully develop and work in their own language at least part time for more than a year or two.

Here were teachers so tired of the whole bilingual effort -- of juggling multiple two-language reading groups, battling supervisors and watching children's confusion when a school offered them dual language at one grade but then abruptly not at another -- that the teachers had finally bailed out. "You go crazy -- that's why a lot of bilingual teachers go out of the program, because they can't handle it," said Erlinda Griffin, a quadrilingual Filipina who left bilingual teaching seven years ago for a school supervisorial job in the central California farm city of Fresno. Griffin believes bilingual education theory, and she has seen programs that seem to her to use it successfully. "But unfortunately, they were in the minority -- there were so few of them."

And here, too, were teachers, nearly all of them monolingual English speakers, convinced that the bilingual classes they had seen were in large part misguided efforts that held a lot of children back. An Arizona teacher remembered Geme, her Navaho student who had sat through five years of bilingual classes before somebody realized the boy was having trouble because he had spoken scarcely a word of Navaho before he came to school. A suburban San Francisco teacher remembered Spanish-speaking children who never seemed to make the promised transition into English. A Rhode Island counselor remembered the Puerto Rican boy, bewildered by his referral to bilingual classes, who told the counselor in flawless English that he had grown up and gone to school in Lawrence, Mass.

"This is the stuff that goes on all the time," the counselor said. "I think a lot of kids are kept in those programs simply to build up the numbers and justify the programs. We've got kids in those programs who are fluent in English."

If anybody does belong in bilingual classes, who is it to be? To this day that generates argument and still another set of complaints. Some states reserve bilingual classes only for children who speak Spanish or some other language, prompting complaints about ethnic and linguistic segregation. California requires them whenever possible to be in classes with native English speakers so the children won't be segregated and will have role models to help them learn the language.

But that doesn't satisfy everybody either. Because most bilingual classes are designed as remedial programs, aimed at moving children into English as rapidly as possible, English-speaking parents have often been disappointed when they allow their children into bilingual classes in the hope that they will learn Spanish. And in towns like Fillmore, a heavily Hispanic southern California farming community where the expansion of bilingual classes set off an angry Anglo protest this spring, English-speaking parents say their children waste time in a class taught partly in another language.

"Who's going to meet my daughter's needs?" demanded Judy Collins, a Fillmore parent whose husband recently proposed a controversial city council-adopted resolution making English the "official language" of Fillmore. "The amount of time that teacher is speaking Spanish is time that my child is not getting English instruction," Collins said.

It is complaints like these that have complicated the response to a generally unenthusiastic 1983 bilingual-education report by two federal Department of Education researchers. At the request of a White House policy review group, the researchers examined several hundred studies on bilingual education, many of which concluded that the classes had improved students' academic performance, and found only 39 to be "methodologically acceptable." After analyzing those 39 studies, the researchers reported bilingual education producing only mixed results.

"Sometimes kids did better," said Department of Education analyst Keith Baker, the report's coauthor. "Sometimes it had no effect. And sometimes it had negative effects."

Baker and his partner, who have been criticized for their own methodology, suggested in the report that although limited-English-speaking children clearly needed some special attention, education officials might rethink their reliance on classes using native languages -- that full-time intensive English programs, for example, might be more effective in some cases.

Would Franklin Elementary's Francesca Ferrari, facing her tiny Ellis Island of a classroom earlier this year, have done any of her students a greater service by using their own language?

"This I do not know," she said.

"I do not know what I really think about bilingual education," Ferrari said.

When the Oakland parents' lawsuit was settled in May, with school officials committing themselves to a considerable expansion of the bilingual staff, the central office finally found some qualified teachers' aides for Franklin; a Tigrinya-speaking Ethiopian man now helps in Ferrari's classroom for 80 minutes a day. And she welcomes his presence, she said. He makes things easier for her. Last month they were working on sq words, and Ferrari did not have to go into contortions or bring lemons into class to explain squirt and squint and squid.

These are ideas the children would have grasped without translation, Ferrari said. Demonstrations, in her experience, are sometimes even more vivid than translation. But she is happy to have the aide anyway -- "grateful," Ferrari said. "I think it's a sense of security for the children to have him there, I really do."

Her class no longer includes the Spanish-speaking child; it is now all Ethiopian and native English-speaking children, and in March, as a welcoming gesture, Ferrari put up an Ethiopian market poster and wrote the Tigrinya words for "How are you?" in big bright letters on a poster she taped to the classroom door. Camilla Ha.

Some weeks later, in discreet messages conveyed through the principal's office, Ferrari was told that this had distressed the Ethiopian families. Parents of all but three of her Ethiopian students indicated on signed forms that they wished their children taught exclusively in English, so Ferrari need no longer abide by her implausible promise to learn Tigrinya.

"They don't want their culture brought in," Ferrari said. "They feel they can take care of that at home." She took the poster down and pulled Camilla Ha off the classroom door.

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