Bilingual era is ending for schools

Mandated by Prop. 227, English-only to be rule

When Kacy Kiggens opens the door for her first-grade class today, the former bilingual education teacher will welcome her Spanish-speaking students to a new school year — and to a whole new way of learning English.

After she explains class rules — using some Spanish to avoid classroom anarchy, she says — students will start learning to pronounce words with unfamiliar sounds, words like “eight” and “floor.”

Instead of gradually teaching English over four to six years, as was done in most bilingual education programs until today, California’s public school students will get a year of English-language boot camp with the aim of moving them to regular classes the following year.

“It’s going to be interesting to see how long it takes these kids to get up to par with their English-speaking counterparts,” said Kiggens,
who teaches at Lincoln Elementary School in Escondido. “Our kids are ready to read in Spanish, but now we have to teach them sounds in English before they can even get to that point” of reading in English.

The changes will be dramatic in the next few months, a result of voters approving Proposition 227. The initiative, which affects 1.4 million students in the state with limited English skills, formally went into effect yesterday.

It does so following a legal fight by organizations representing students in bilingual classes and their parents, who challenged a federal judge’s decision allowing the proposition to take effect. On Friday, without comment,
the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals denied the attempt to block Proposition 227.

Most schools in San Diego County won’t be affected by the initiative until they open later this month or in early September. Other year-round schools that began classes last month are taking advantage of a window that allows them to implement changes next semester.

But year-round schools that begin instruction today in the Vista Unified and Escondido Union elementary and middle school districts, where Kiggens teaches, are immediately affected.

These schools will be among the first to explore how the new rules apply to classroom realities, such as lack of instructional materials and untested lesson plans, even as the state Board of Education continues to clarify and interpret the initiative.

Not everyone is going along.

School districts in Oakland and San Francisco have vowed to preserve bilingual education, claiming they are bound to do so through federal decrees.
Districts in Berkeley and Hayward are suing in state court to force state education officials to hear their arguments for waivers to keep programs intact.

But districts in San Diego County seem to be preparing to follow the law, albeit with varying interpretations and enthusiasm.

Districts such as South Bay Union in Imperial Beach and National School District in National City are considering becoming charter schools to free them from having to abolish what they consider successful bilingual programs.

Charter schools are exempt from many state Education Code regulations and would be exempt from the initiative.

“Our bilingual programs have always had two major goals — that all students learn and acquire English and become proficient in English and that they achieve in all subject areas like native English speakers,”
said South Bay Union Superintendent Larry Acheatel.

“Our test scores indicate we have been very successful in that,
and that is why we will explore any legal means possible to do that,”
Acheatel said.

Other districts intend to keep their bilingual programs waiting in the wings.

Under Proposition 227, all students are required to start out in the one-year English immersion classes. After 30 days, however, parents can seek a waiver to place their children in bilingual education classes.

To do this, a parent or guardian must go to the school and fill out a form to exempt their child from the English immersion program. The initiative says students can be granted waivers if they have physical, emotional, psychological or educational needs that would be better addressed in an alternative program.
That would be determined by the school principal and educational staff.

Each district’s response to the initiative is as distinct as its student population.

“I think it’s really kind of all over the map,” said attorney Tina Dyer, who held a workshop recently at the county Office of Education.

“Some districts are more quickly adapting to the change and others are taking a little more time,” she said. “I think this whole next year will be a year of a lot of flexibility and trying to implement this as best as they can.”

The initiative’s language has prompted a variety of interpretations among districts. For example, the initiative defines “sheltered English immersion”
— the mainstay of the one-year program — as one in which nearly all classroom instruction is in English.

But take a poll of local educators, and “nearly all” can mean anywhere from 60 to 95 percent instruction in English.

“My tendency is to go for a literal and conservative interpretation of the language,” said Superintendent Ken Noonan of the Oceanside School District, opting for more intensive English use.

Bill Loftus, assistant superintendent for instructional services at Vista Unified School District, was less specific, saying “certainly more than half and less than 100 percent” of teaching will be in English.

Sheri Annis, spokeswoman for English for the Children, which sponsored Proposition 227, said she would expect teachers to be using other languages no more than 5 percent of the time.

Annis said that attempts by districts to keep some bilingual programs going are “certainly not what California voters voted on.”

Still, she said, they would be considered legal options.

In the National School District, for example, administrators are compressing the time frame for giving students more concentrated English instruction.
Instead of having a 50-50 split for Spanish and English instruction in third grade, the first semester will be 50-50 and the second semester will be taught completely in English, said Superintendent George Cameron.

The Oceanside Unified district intends to offer a bilingual program that would last no more than three years, and Escondido Union elementary and middle school district is researching a similar plan. Both districts would be able to do so with the use of waivers.

The San Diego Unified School District continues to map out its options before the school year begins Aug. 31. Instead of waivers, the district is preparing “student election forms” to allow parents “to elect to be in a program, rather than waiving out of a program,” said Frank Till, deputy to the superintendent.

The district is reforming its bilingual program to provide options that could range from traditional bilingual education to English immersion, depending on what parents want for their children.

But Annis said that to comply with the initiative, such programs must demonstrate they effectively improve students’ English-language skills.
She doesn’t believe there will be a demand for bilingual programs once students and parents get a taste of English immersion.

“We believe most parents are going to be satisfied,” Annis said.

Districts with two-way bilingual education programs, such as Valley Center and Jamul-Dulzura, also hope to retain their programs using waivers. Annis expects they will succeed since the programs generally have strong parent support.

Two-way programs mix English speakers and non-English speakers so that students learn each others’ languages. Starting from kindergarten, students spend increasing amounts of time learning the non-native language until,
by fifth grade, they can be taught in either.

Valley Center Superintendent Jeff Mulford said some parents may simply opt to give English immersion a try rather than go through the waiver process.
But he believes his district’s two-way bilingual program will survive.

“It’s a very popular program in our district, and if we tried to eliminate it, that’s where we would have a real problem,” he said.

Some districts have low numbers of students who speak limited English.
These offer English as a Second Language programs, where students learn English as part of their school day. Since they don’t offer traditional bilingual education, these districts are unsure how they will be affected by the initiative.

“Our classes are generally so heterogeneous with languages that teachers have for the most part spoken only English,” said John Collins,
assistant superintendent of learning support services at Poway Unified.

But Annis said that while ESL is a strong base to build on, the initiative requires that its practices be expanded throughout the entire day.

“They need to expand on ESL programs so that they are also teaching the content core curriculum,” Annis said. “Teachers trained to do ESL would be the perfect candidates to teach an English immersion class.”

Meanwhile, to prepare for implementing the initiative, school districts such as Escondido Union are holding classes for former bilingual education teachers to get them up to speed on techniques similar to those used in ESL courses.

As in most districts, Escondido Union does not have enough instructional materials for all its students to learn English the new way. So, they are improvising.

About 60 teachers attended a recent seminar sponsored by the district that encouraged them, among other things, to use songs to reinforce words and pronunciation. Teachers received a book full of ways to acquaint students with new words and language sounds.

Kiggens, the teacher at Lincoln Elementary School in Escondido, normally would have started the first day of school reading a story in Spanish after teaching students such rules as raising their hands to be called on to speak.
Now she is looking for pictures and other visual aids to help teach words in English.

She is aware that lessons must be in English, though teachers may use another language to make sure students understand. But before she can get her students to learn, she has to win their trust.

“If they are not comfortable with you, your style or your language,
then they will just shut down, so establishing a comfort zone is really important,” Kiggens said. “I’ve had children cry when I told them
‘Good morning’ in English .?.?. on the first day of school.”

Staff writers Maureen Magee, Chris Moran and Lillian Salazar Leopold contributed to this report.

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