Marcos Pineiro came to Compton, Calif., from Spain last month to teach grade-
school students with limited English skills in their native Spanish.

School district officials recruited Mr. Pineiro and about 200 other bilingual
teachers in Spain for California’s current school year. The teachers arrived
here largely unprepared for the effects of Proposition 227. The ballot
initiative has outlawed bilingual education in most of the state’s public
school system.

California voters passed the measure in June to replace a dual-language
system, in which students were taught English but learned other subjects in
their native tongue. Critics, including some parents of students receiving
bilingual education, had complained that the system led to high drop-out rates
and low English literacy. The proposition mandates for all students a period
of “English immersion,” in which instruction in all subjects is supposed to
take place “overwhelmingly” in English.

One result is an Alice-in-Wonderland scene in many California classrooms:
Non-native English-speaking teachers teaching non-native English-speaking
pupils in English. These teachers and students are in a kind of limbo, muddling
through in a language that isn’t their own.

“I mean, what’s this? English? All English?” says Mr. Pineiro, a scholarly
looking 28-year-old, who teaches his first-graders in accented but passable
English. “That’s fine for me, because I will improve. But I wonder to myself:
Is it fair?”

In all, about 400 bilingual teachers from Spain work in California’s public
schools, where roughly 1.4 million students, or 25% of the state’s public-
school population, are classified as having limited English skills. These
teachers’ predicament is a revealing lesson in the aftereffects of Proposition
227, a controversial referendum at the center of the debate over immigration
and assimilation. In Texas, Illinois and elsewhere, some opponents of bilingual
education view the measure as a blueprint for institutionalizing English-only

Juan Bargueno, a native of Spain who teaches second grade at Hoover Street
Elementary School in Los Angeles, says he has been teaching under Proposition
227 for two months now and doesn’t think it is working. “My children can’t read
in Spanish or English,” he says. “They have spent two months without any
reading at all.”

Children can study a language for just a small part of the day before they
stop paying attention, Mr. Bargueno says. “The bad cases are completely lost,”
he adds.

California school districts have been recruiting bilingual teachers abroad
for about a decade. In addition to Spain, this year’s hires include teachers
from Mexico, Hong Kong and the Philippines.

Recruiters from Compton Unified School District went to Spain as recently as
April under a visiting-teacher program run jointly by the California Department
of Education and the Spanish Ministry of Education. Mr. Pineiro says they
assured him California would still need bilingual teachers, even if the then-
pending Proposition 227 passed. That is because it gives parents the right to
request that a child be moved to a so-called sheltered class, where teachers
are allowed to speak some Spanish and use some Spanish-language materials.

It isn’t yet clear what role bilingual teachers will end up playing in
California classrooms. Proposition 227 has been upheld in federal court and
federal appeals court in San Francisco but may still face a higher legal
challenge. A legal dispute continues to rage over whether entire schools could
be exempt from the Proposition.

Eda Caraballo, a coordinator of the visiting-teacher program for the
California Department of Education, emphasizes the state is grateful to have
the bilingual teachers at a time when qualified instructors are hard to find.
“It’s better for these schools to have an experienced teacher rather than
someone on an emergency credential,” Ms. Caraballo says.

At least for now, each district is drawing its own conclusions about what
“overwhelming” means, says Doug Stone, a spokesman for the California
Department of Education. “What we do believe is the focus ought to be on
English instruction,” he says. In Compton, officials say 90% of instruction
should be in English.

Mr. Pineiro says he rarely speaks Spanish to a student because he doesn’t
want anyone to report him. Some of his students tease him about his
pronunciation. “Caaahhr,” he says, emphasizing the way he learned to speak
English in Europe. Then, wrinkling up his nose, he imitates the nasal
pronunciation his students use to correct him.

Mr. Pineiro’s brother, Oscar, who also teaches first grade in Compton, says
he doesn’t mind teaching in English. Explaining simple concepts without the aid
of a common language is sometimes frustrating, he admits. “You must be like an
actor,” he says, waving his hand widely in the air.

Mr. Pineiro says he has only 20 English books for the more than 80 students
in his classes. “They told us, ‘You have to be creative,’ ” he says. Without
enough books, teachers rely heavily on photocopied pages.

In Paso Robles, a small, coastal farming community between Los Angeles and
San Francisco, district officials say they think 60% of instruction should be
in English. So teachers there are allowed to use Spanish 40% of the time.

On a recent day at the Georgia Brown Elementary School in Paso Robles, a
group of bilingual teachers talked about why they want to use Spanish with
students some of the time. “I’m proud of showing them that [Spanish] isn’t
something that will keep them from getting a good job,” says Monica Sierra, a
first-grade teacher.

Indeed, a common language between teachers and students can create valuable
bonds. During a recess period, Ms. Sierra plays with her class beneath the
shade of a large tree at the far end of the soccer field. As they run to grab a
handkerchief she holds, she encourages them in English. But when recess ends,
and the children scurry back over the grass towards school, a little boy is
left sobbing on his knees.

“Que paso?” Ms. Sierra asks him tenderly, putting her arm around him. He
explains in Spanish that he didn’t do well in the game.

Sometimes teachers and students stumble as they search for the right word or
phrase in English. On the first day of school last month, Mr. Bargueno prepares
his second-graders to walk across the playground in an orderly fashion. As they
chatter away in Spanish, Mr. Bargueno, who was hired in 1990, nags them in
heavily accented English.

“Be good. We have an assembly now,” he says, putting the accent in “assembly”
on the “a.” Later, he says with a shrug, “It’s going to be OK. I can still
teach math.”

Comments are closed.