The Long Beach Unified School District is officially implementing its Proposition 227 programs today, but most of the fourth-graders in Nathan Cuellar’s class at Burcham Elementary probably won’t notice.
Nor will the second-graders in Kathleen Rapp’s class, just across the schoolyard. That’s because they will keep the same teacher and the same classmates they’ve had all year. They will not be moved into a class where all the students speak as much, or as little, English as they do. Nor will they be placed in a class where they will once again speak Spanish most of the time.
Sure, their teachers are now speaking English most of the time, but it’s been a gradual process, and those instructors can still be counted on to speak Spanish when a student gets really confused. And while there is a lot more reading in English, there are still Spanish textbooks available for students to preview tricky concepts.
But though these pupils may not be aware of the changes Proposition 227 has brought into their lives, their teachers are.
“It’s been a challenge,” said Cuellar, who started his teaching career at Burcham in 1997. His first year, he taught a traditional bilingual class, where non-English speakers were taught academic subjects in their native tongue while they were slowly taught in English.
But 227 put a stop to that. Passed by voters in June, the proposition required districts to scrap bilingual education in favor of sheltered immersion. Sheltered immersion requires pupils to be taught mostly in English, with some native language support. The idea behind it is to make sure pupils become fluent in English as soon as possible.
A new approach
For teachers like Cuellar and Rapp, this meant changing their teaching approach.
“It’s very different from last year,” said Rapp, who has taught bilingual programs for 21 years. Before she would teach one day in English and one day in Spanish. Now she teaches in English, though she reviews difficult concepts in Spanish.
Both teachers agreed that the district’s decision not to make an abrupt transition into sheltered English immersion was a good one.
Although legally compelled to implement sheltered immersion programs by the beginning of the school year, Long Beach Unified administrators predicted they would be unable to design anything effective by last September.
Thus, school began with all English learners in bilingual classes. However, shortly after that, all bilingual kindergartens adopted sheltered immersion programs.
Older students in bilingual classes, however, were a different story. All during the fall term, bilingual teachers were encouraged to use more and more English in the classroom.
Four options for parents
Earlier this month, parents were presented with four options, each suited to a pupil’s English level. For several decades, each English language learner in the district has been tested each year to determine his or her level of fluency. The pupil is graded on a scale from A to F. An A student speaks very little English, while an F student is fluent.
The four options are geared toward A through E pupils. F pupils are placed in mainstream English programs. In the past, the district required only that A pupils learn enough English in a year to rise to a B. Since Proposition 227, however, they are required to go from A to C.
But there may be problems with that, administrators said, since when a pupil hits C, it takes longer to rise to a D than it did from an A to a B.
The process can be compared to what a dieter goes through — the first 30 pounds are usually easier to lose than the last five.
Most pupils in Kathleen Rapp’s class are Bs, which means they do not speak a lot of English. However, there are also a few As and Cs.
In Cuellar’s class, most of the students are Cs with a few Ds, two As and an E.
But those pupils who do not mesh with the majority will not be split up from their classmates and placed in separate programs, said Burcham principal Sue McKee, at least not this semester. That would be too disruptive. Next year, she added, students will be grouped more accurately.
Although parents can ask schools to place their children in an option that better suits their children’s language level, for the rest of the school year no Burcham parents have asked to do this, McKee said.
Principals in other elementary schools echoed McKee.
No parents at Roosevelt Elementary, where 80 percent of pupils are English learners, asked to have their children placed in a different class, said Principal Marnos Lelesi.
It was the same case at Grant Elementary, where about 45 percent of the pupils are not fluent in English.
However, Sue Feinberg, Grant’s principal, said parents of 20 kindergarteners asked for waivers to place their children in a dual Spanish literacy class, the closest thing the district currently has to bilingual education. Dual literacy teaches pupils in their native tongue for a third of their day.
The purpose behind that program is to ensure that students do not lose their primary language. However, since that type of class goes against the intent of Proposition 227, parents have to request a waiver from the district.
Grant is one of several elementary schools in the district that will offer the option. This year, it will be offered only in kindergarten, since that was the only grade that implemented 227 right away. Next year, it will be offered in the other grades.