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PROMISE Initiative: Participants Can't Ignore Students' Native Languages

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A research-based initiative being piloted in 15 schools in six school districts in California requires participating schools to commit to "bilingualism, biliteracy, and multiculturalism" in teaching English-language learners, according to Jan Gustafson, the director of the project, called the PROMISE Initiative. (Its long name is: Pursuing Regional Opportunities for Mentoring, Innovation, and Success for English Learners.)

Six Southern California county offices of education launched the initiative three years ago with a federal grant of $500,000. The pilot project started in September. Each of the six school districts pays an annual fee of $10,000 to participate.

By 2009, the PROMISE Initiative aims to produce findings of how best to educate English-language learners that are backed up with proof from participating schools. Areas of focus include curriculum, assessment, professional development, and parent involvement. But from the start, the schools accepted to participate had to give a nod to research that favors bilingual education over English-only methods and promise to incorporate the use of students' native languages in instruction. This is required even of schools that employ the default method in California for ELLs: "structured English immersion."

As most of you probably know, California voters passed a ballot initiative in 1998 that curtailed bilingual education. Under that state law, schools can provide bilingual education as the primary means of instruction only to children whose parents asked for a waiver from English-immersion programs.

Most of the schools in the PROMISE initiative are running bilingual programs for some of their ELLs through the waiver process. But the rest are expected to "be creative" and find a way to incorporate native-language instruction, such as through after-school programs, Ms. Gustafson said.

She acknowledged in a phone interview with me this week that supporting the use of native-language instruction in California is "an uphill battle." But it's clearly a battle that the PROMISE initiative is willing to fight.

The PROMISE initiative received national attention when its leaders testified about the No Child Left Behind Act and ELLs at a subcommittee hearing in March of the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Education and Labor. Read the testimony here.

See an earlier related post, "Bilingual Education Grows in Texas, Declines in Some Other States."

1 Comment

Thanks for highlighting the work of the PROMISE Initiative. As a point of clarification, the 15 schools in the Pilot Study all have or are in the planning year to implement a bilingual program (eg. Dual Immersion, Spanish Speakers, Late Exit transitional bilingual education, etc.) for a portion of their EL students at their sites under the parent waiver, however, some of them do offer SEI programs as well for some of their EL students. The other “more creative” programs noted in the article ( such as Spanish for Spanish speakers, after school language programs, etc.) are in place or are being planned for to provide an enriched language learning experience for all students—not just those in bilingual classrooms. PROMISE is about promoting student academic success (in English and in students' primary languages) through a framework built around bilingualism, biliteracy, and multiculturalism based on 8 research based core principles. The vision and the work being done in our pilot schools is very exciting! To learn more, go to our website at www.promise-initiative.org.

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