At first glance–or at first listen–it is difficult to tell that only a few months ago most of the first-graders in Zoe Garcia’s class at Thomas Jefferson Elementary spoke very little English.
Until last year, most would automatically have been placed in a bilingual class where the bulk of subject matter was taught in Spanish. But with the passage of Proposition 227, the anti-bilingual education initiative, the Anaheim children went straight to English-only lessons.
How did they fare? The answer is complicated. In ways, they’ve been spectacular, rattling away easily in a language few felt comfortable with 10 months ago. But it’s difficult for Garcia to gauge how much subject matter they have understood.
On the surface, it seems that the experiment has been fruitful. They start the school day in Room 28 with a blitz of English–reciting the Pledge of Allegiance and belting out “It’s a Grand Old Flag.”
The English goes on, almost without break. The children whisper to each other in English, obey Garcia’s rapid-fire English instructions, joke in English and, now and then, blurt out some fact they urgently want their teacher to know:
“Mrs. Garcia, my brother has a turtle and it stinks sometimes!”
“Mrs. Garcia! I’m going to go see my grandmother on Saturday!”
They also have a knack for first-grade humor. How old is Mrs. Garcia?
Jose Moreno, 7, gave her a puckish grin: “She’s 100.”
“I was really amazed at how well it went this year,” Garcia said. “I was not looking forward to it at all, but I think they’ve done really well. Everyone has made progress.”
Garcia, who was born in Cuba and learned English in bilingual classes, strongly opposed Proposition 227. She has been pleasantly surprised by her students’ progress, but she has some reservations.
Some of her students read with ease and enjoyment. But others, two weeks before first grade ends, sit in a horseshoe formation around Garcia and review the sounds of the alphabet.
Last Tuesday, one group practiced “ail” words. Pail. Rail. Flail. They sounded the first consonant in the word, then linked to the two vowels in the middle then added the final “l” sound.
“When two vowels go walking, the first one does the talking,” Garcia said, explaining the long “a” sound of the vowels in the middle.
At Jefferson, 94% of the 784 students are Latino, and two-thirds speak better Spanish than English. Many of Garcia’s students did not attend kindergarten and arrived at Jefferson without knowing the alphabet.
So she began the year teaching the ABCs and then converting the letters to a sound. The sounds link and become words, but even when formed the words often had no meaning for the children.
“P-a-r-ents” she sounded out with a child who still looked blankly at the final product. “Tu mama y papa are your parents. Tus padres,” Garcia translated.
She still believes that students learn English better by first learning to read in their primary language, because they have a vocabulary to translate and understand content better.
Still, the new English-only system has its merits, she concedes. Students who were clearly baffled by English earlier in the year are more confident of their abilities. If they still misspell words and mispronounce letters, they are closer to being right than wrong.
“Even if they get the first part of the word right, then I’ll give them credit for that,” Garcia said. She holds up a paper with “beaches” spelled “beheses” and “buxes” for “boxes.” Earlier in the year the child would have simply turned in a blank paper, she said.
At the beginning of the school year, a Spanish-speaking instructional aide worked part-time in the classroom, helping some students with their English skills. By the end of the year, all of her attention is focused on Cristina Garcia, 7, who arrived from Tijuana in April and speaks no English.
And that’s the good news: No one else seems to need the help.
But the teacher does not compare this year’s English-only class to her previous bilingual ones.
“It’s all so different there’s really no point,” Garcia said.
Officials at several other schools in the county say they have seen good results with English immersion.
At Topaz Elementary School in Fullerton, Principal Dorie Staack said that like Garcia, she also refrains from comparing the two systems of instruction. But even when the school had traditional bilingual classes it emphasized English instruction, she said.
Topaz has four levels of English for students of varying fluency, and the majority of the 1,000 children at the school are showing significant progress, she said.
“We don’t look back,” Staack said. “Voters gave a choice to our parents, and I have asked our staff to remain neutral. Because of the quality of our staff, we have done a very fine program.”
At O.A. Peters Elementary School in Garden Grove, one of the district’s few schools that previously had a strong bilingual program, Principal Gary Lewis said English immersion is producing excellent results.
At first Lewis had planned to place the new English learners in a second year of transition classes, where they get extra help in Spanish. But the children have done so well that the teachers have talked him out of it.
“They thought the children had progressed beautifully and are ready for full integration,” Lewis said.
First-grade teacher Christina Husk said she was pessimistic about the switch from bilingual education to immersion, but she found the results good.
“When appropriately done, bilingual education did work,” Husk said. “But this works too.”
Back in Room 28 at Jefferson Elementary, Frank Avila, 7, has figured out that whether he is telling a story or practicing grammar, reading the week’s vocabulary or playing with flashcards, there is no escape from English.
“I don’t like reading,” he announced. “It’s all words!”
Zoe Garcia feigns horror. “Oh no! Don’t tell me that. Reading is my favorite thing to do, and I want you to love it too.”