It was about 6 p.m. on Thursday, Oct. 22, when third-grader Danielle White sat down at a long table, opened a book, and began to read aloud to the 60 or so parents, teachers and pupils gathered in the Daniel Webster Elementary School auditorium.
Her voice faltered a little at first — it was clear she was nervous in front of such a large crowd — but as she stumbled over some of the longer words, no one could fault her impeccable accent as she read “Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day” in Spanish.
A few moments later, third-grader Joanna Gomez took the stage. She read selections in both Spanish and English, showing herself fluent in both, perhaps even a little more so in English.
Both girls are part of Webster’s 3-year-old, two-way immersion program. It puts English speakers and Spanish speakers in the same classroom and teaches them both languages in the hope that, by the time they leave elementary school, they will be fully bilingual.
But because of Proposition 227, the girls will not be able to continue in the program unless their school or their parents get a waiver.
Proposition 227, also known as the English for the Children initiative, passed in June and requires children in public schools be taught “nearly all” in English. According to the proposition, parents must get waivers to keep their children in programs where they are taught primarily in other languages.
Webster’s two-way immersion program doesn’t qualify. It starts by teaching kindergarteners 90 percent of the time in Spanish and 10 percent in English. By third grade, they’re taught 60 percent of the time in Spanish and 40 in English. By fifth grade, it’s 50-50.
The system is patterned after a 10-year-old program at Patrick Henry Elementary School that’s been a model to schools across the country. Two-way immersion also takes place at Willard, Lafayette and Robinson elementary schools in the Long Beach district, and there are two-way programs in the ABC and Los Angeles districts.
“The program we have at Webster is not a bilingual program,” says Webster principal Wanda Oliver. In a bilingual program, pupils are taught in their primary language most of the time. In two-way immersion, this does not happen, she says; pupils of different languages are mixed together and learn from each other.
But 227 supporters say two-way immersion is simply another form of bilingual education. Businessman Ron Unz, who drafted the initiative, has criticized such programs in Saddleback and San Juan Capistrano. Those programs recently were granted waivers as “alternative schools” by Delaine Eastin, state superintendent of public instruction.
“Alternative schools are illegal,” Unz says.
According to the state education code, if enough teachers, parents and students agree, the state superintendent can recategorize a program as an alternative school within a school. Once categorized, it is exempt from initiatives such as 227.
Thursday night’s meeting at Webster was to rally support. After listening to Danielle, Joanna and several other children read, parents urged other parents to support the program.
Lee White, Danielle’s mother, said she was very proud of her daughter’s language ability.
“Danielle is constantly practicing her Spanish skills,” White said.
Hilda Duenas said her daughter has learned English so well that she now acts as her mother’s translator.
“They (the children) understand both languages academically,” Duenas said in Spanish.
About half of Webster’s pupils are enrolled in two-way immersion, about 75 percent of them Spanish speakers. Oliver says the school has not worked as hard at recruiting because administrators were unsure of the program’s fate after 227 passed.