At elementary schools scattered across Los Angeles, teachers are
delivering promising reports that their students are learning English
more quickly than anticipated six months after the implementation of
the anti-bilingual education law, Proposition 227.

“I honestly didn’t expect to see them achieve as well as they are
doing,” said Jose Posada, bilingual education coordinator at Los
Angeles Elementary School in Koreatown.

“Many of us who believed in the bilingual education program were
scared about the unknowns,” he said. “Now we’re saying, ‘Well,
maybe it’s not so bad. Maybe it’s time we start talking about the
positives.’ ”

In interviews at 13 Los Angeles Unified School District campuses
with large immigrant populations, primary grade teachers said their
students are absorbing verbal English at a surprising pace. Some
children are even taking the next step and learning to read and write
in English.

Still, many of these teachers and other educators question whether
most of the youngsters have acquired the language skills necessary to
comprehend math, reading or history lessons in English. Some
suggest that students are imitating, or parroting, their English-
speaking teachers rather than thinking in the language.

Many worry that the children are falling behind in their studies as
they struggle with a new language and that they will not be ready to
enter mainstream English classes within one year, as Proposition 227
calls for.

The depth of their English skills will become clearer after they take
the Stanford 9 standardized tests in the spring.

The test results, coupled with new state guidelines for rating English
language development, will help schools determine at year’s end
which students should be placed in mainstream classes and which
should remain in English immersion another year. The second-year
option is allowed by Proposition 227.

In the meantime, educators are expressing cautious optimism that if
students can say it, they get it.

“We’re off to a good start,” said Maria Ochoa, district administrator
for language acquisition. “Things are running smoothly. By the end
of the year we’ll have a better grasp of how well these students are
doing.”

Kris Gutierrez, associate professor of education at UCLA and a
specialist in culture and learning in urban schools, agreed–to a point.

“Imitation can be one of the first stages of learning, if it is part of a
larger strategy,” she said. “But the development of oral language
skills doesn’t tell us much about comprehension.”

Gutierrez said she also has heard positive reports from teachers, but
still harbors some concerns.

“I wish [the teachers] were saying, ‘Juan is reading four books he
wasn’t reading before,’ or that their kids were taking more books
home,” she said. “If they were really getting turned on by English,
they’d be checking out books and at least pretending to read them.”

Many teachers lament having to water down core subjects such as
science and social studies for students who are just beginning to read
and write in English. On the other hand, they are relieved that
youngsters who spoke little or no English only months ago are
generally at ease, even enthusiastic about their post-Proposition 227
reading and writing assignments.

“I expected that their self-esteem would be affected, and that they
would feel inhibited, give up easily,” said Yomy Duran, a second-
grade teacher at Dena Elementary School southeast of downtown.
“Instead, they are excited, motivated.”

“One-fourth of my class can write. Yes, there are grammatical errors,
but, hey, you read it,” she added. “My biggest fear is whether I’m
doing enough for them. Can I do more? But the fear of them
standing still
academically is gone.”

Take her students’ responses to a recent question of the day: “What
do birds eat?”

Twenty hands shot up. “They eat worms,” one youngster said in
English. “Some birds eat other small animals,” added a classmate.

Later, during a review of the lesson, which included repetitive
reading from a book about birds reinforced with simple sentences
written on the blackboard, Duran again asked, “What do birds eat?”

Twenty voices yelled in unison, “They eat worms!’

“Is that all they eat?” Duran asked.

“Nooooo! Some birds eat small animals,” they said.

Duran was delighted that they understood her question and answered
properly. But nagging at her was the fact that none of them had used
phrases such as “little animals” or “tiny animals” instead of the
“small animals” she had written on the blackboard. She worried that
the students were just mimicking her.

“The big question is whether they can transfer the information in
another situation,” she said.

A few miles away, at First Street Elementary School, Irma Rodriguez
cooed that her daughters, a kindergartner and a third-grader, “are
learning to speak, which is what I always wanted. We’re all happy.”

On the first day at school after a three-week break, her daughter’s
kindergarten teachers, Sofia DeLatorre and Maria Barajas, also were
upbeat. But then, too, they regretted having to teach their English
learners at a slower pace than they would have liked.

“They are picking up more English, but it’s social English–I still
have to present new concepts in Spanish,” Barajas said.

“No matter how hard I try, we won’t have as many readers in our
class as we did last year, when we were all speaking only in their
primary language,” she said.

Until this year, most of First Street School’s 800 students learned to
read and write in Spanish in kindergarten through third grade, with
English phased in later. Since Proposition 227 was implemented last
summer, children with limited English skills have been placed in
yearlong English immersion programs. In Los Angeles Unified, as in
many other school districts, the children continue to receive varying
amounts of assistance in their primary language.

At the start of the school year, First Street Principal Judy Leff, a firm
supporter of bilingual education, led a series of parent meetings
aimed at ensuring that residents understood their options, including
their right to seek a waiver to continue traditional bilingual
instruction.

By the time classes began in September, Leff said, fewer than 20
waivers had been requested. Instead, she said, the vast majority of
parents chose to enroll their children in a structured English
immersion program.

Officials at Charles W. Barrett Elementary School in South-Central
Los Angeles also report encouraging progress.

“We still don’t have the total picture. But in my opinion, our students
are learning academic English faster than anticipated,” said bilingual
education coordinator Jesus Romero.

“How deep is the progress? It may take years to know for sure,” he
said.

Sylvia Harris, a first-grade teacher at Martin Luther King Jr.
Elementary School in South-Central, asks the same question.

“The first day of class, their eyes were wide open with fear, and I
kept thinking to myself, ‘We’ll get through this thing together,’ ” she
recalled. “Now, I still have concerns. But the kids are doing very
well. Parents are relaxed. We’re all very happy campers.”



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