The 28 third-graders in Room 23 at Edison Elementary School study math and reading with books in Spanish. Spanish posters, calendars and word cards cover the walls.
In one corner of the room is what teacher Sharon Larson calls “the transition box,” a cardboard carton packed with workbooks to help Spanish speakers learn to read and write English.
Edison has only three transition boxes to share among 18 classrooms.
A shortage of the boxes is one of many reasons Edison and other schools in Santa Ana Unified are making a slow transition from bilingual to English-only instruction.
Spanish textbooks must be replaced. Teachers need retraining. Regulations need clarification. Questions must be answered.
How often may teachers speak Spanish? What role will classroom aides play? Where will money for books come from?
Santa Ana Unified officials hope a court hearing today will buy some time while they figure out what to do. A lawsuit for an injunction to block Proposition 227 has its first hearing in U.S. District Court in San Francisco.
Opponents argue that the measure to outlaw bilingual education violates the rights of California’s 1.4 million limited-English students to an equal education.
“They don’t have equal access to the curriculum if they can’t understand the language of instruction,” said Laura Ferreiro, spokeswoman for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, which is seeking the injunction.
Defenders of the law say critics have a tough case to make in showing that the initiative, approved in June by 61 percent of voters, will cause harm.
“You should wait for a factual situation to emerge that shows it denies people’s rights,” said Mike Hersher, chief counsel for the state Department of Education, which didn’t support 227.
Prop. 227 requires teachers to use English overwhelmingly as the language of instruction and calls for limited-English students to be placed in mainstream classes, in most cases after one year of intensive immersion.
The state Board of Education ruled that the program must begin at all schools that start after Aug. 2 or after the first grading term at schools that started earlier this summer.
Officials from Santa Ana Unified, where 71 percent of the 54,000 students speak limited English, say they cannot meet the deadline.
“Can we realistically be ready by Aug. 3? No,” said Joseph Tafoya, deputy superintendent in charge of curriculum.
Textbooks are the most obvious problem. It would cost $52,000 to replace year-old Spanish language reading books at Edison. The estimated cost to the district: $2.5 million.
“Even if I got (approval) on my desk today to purchase what we want,
it takes about five months to get (books) from the publishers,” Tafoya said.
At a meeting Tuesday, the Santa Ana school board ordered a complete assessment of the costs of complying with Prop. 227. School board members favored a go-slow approach.
The challenges of implementing the law were visible Tuesday at Edison.
The year-round school, which resumed classes last week, has 950 students.
More than 80 percent of them speak limited English.
“Once we’re told what to do, we’ll start the transition period,”
said Principal Ann Leibovitz. “But it will take the rest of the school year to get them ready to be taught in English by July ’99.”
About two-thirds of Edison’s kindergarten students study in Spanish while the rest begin in English-only classes.
In first grade, many students in both programs still struggle writing the alphabet, confusing “b” and “d,” for example.
Teaching children to write in a language they don’t understand doesn’t work, said first-grade teacher Ed Colvillo.
Colvillo’s students are learning to write in Spanish and he speaks mostly in Spanish, though he has made a point of using more English since Prop.
227 passed. He uses gestures, pictures and other props to help his pupils understand, but there are limits to what they can take in English.
“Sometimes they give me a blank stare and I know it’s not working,”
he said. “There needs to be a mix of both English and Spanish – maybe 50-50 or 25-75. If we wiped out Spanish, these kids would fail totally.”
Edison’s third- through fifth-graders are close to failure anyway. They scored below the 20th percentile on the English-language Stanford 9 reading tests.
Several of Edison’s 40 teachers prefer immersion to bilingual education.
But in addition to new materials, students need time to adjust, teachers said.
Third-grade teacher Larson spends about two-thirds of her day speaking Spanish, although her vocabulary is limited and her American accent is audible.
“I do as much English as they can take,” she said. “My personal opinion, my prejudice, is that immersion is the best way to go.”
While many school officials complain about a shortage of resources to implement Prop. 227, others give similar reasons for low achievement under bilingual programs.
Fifth-grade teacher Laurie Kohls said many bilingual teachers don’t speak Spanish well enough to teach in that language, so the real teaching often falls to bilingual classroom aides who aren’t trained to be teachers.
“The children in those classes are usually about one grade level behind,” said Kohls, a teacher for 16 years. “I feel it’s because there aren’t enough bilingual teachers to do it right. The bilingual program works in theory, but we live in the real world here.”
Register staff writer Angelita Moraga contributed to this report.