L.B. Parents to Face Big Choice

Students can request bilingual classes over English

In little more than a month, parents of English learners in the Long Beach Unified School District will face the same tough question asked of parents in districts like ABC, Downey and Norwalk-La Mirada. What is the best program for my child, now that he or she is being taken out of bilingual education?

Proposition 227, passed in June, forced districts to take their limited-English speaking students out of bilingual education, where they were taught subjects like science and math in their native tongue and place them instead in sheltered English immersion, where they are taught mostly in English.

As other districts scrambled to obey the law by September, officials in Long Beach said they needed more time to design a plan. The district’s 227 task force finally unveiled that plan in mid-December. All English learners will now be placed in one of four programs, all stressing English but designed to teach it according to each child’s aptitude.

F for `fluent’

For decades, all students who speak a language other than English at home have been tested by the district. They are graded on a scale from A to F. Unlike the traditional grading scale, F does not stand for “failure” but for “fluent.”

In the past, A and B children were often placed in bilingual education programs. With 227, this is no longer an option. However, the law also says parents can ask districts to put their children back in bilingual education after they have been in English classes for a month. The tricky question that parents face, then, is whether to ask their district for a waiver.

In Downey, parents say good teachers and effective instruction influenced them to return their children to district bilingual education classes. Only one school in Downey — Gauldin Elementary — has bilingual classes.

“She has a good teacher,” said Gauldin parent Ebelia Rojas, whose daughter Blanca, 5, is already picking up English through immersion classes at the end of the day. “She learns things that I don’t know because I don’t know English.”

Parents say exposure to at least two languages is one of the program’s chief strong points — despite the fact that it was designed to ease limited-English proficiency pupils into a new language.

“Bilingual education is good because she has the chance to learn in two languages,” said Rosa Esbimola, whose daughter Naomi, 5, attends kindergarten at Gauldin.

Program endangered

At Niemes Elementary in ABC Unified, learning two languages has always been the plan. For the past nine years, the school has had a two-way immersion program, which mixes native Spanish speakers with native English speakers and teaches them both languages.

However, the program was jeopardized by the passage of 227. The program is designed to teach students in Spanish 90 percent of the time in kindergarten and 80 percent in first grade. In fifth grade, they spend half the day in English and half in Spanish. The law allows children who speak English to learn a foreign language, but insists that non-English speakers be taught mostly in English. However, without the Spanish speakers, there would be no point in having the program, teachers said, because there would be no exchange.

“If we didn’t have our English-language learners, we could not continue the program,” said teacher Lupe Sandoval.

So for parents happy with the program, it was an easy decision.

“It was going to be more difficult for them,” said Maria Vaquera in Spanish.

Vaquera’s three children — fifth-grader Yahaira, fourth-grader Jesus and first-grader Nereida — are all in the program. Although Yahaira and Jesus are quite fluent in English, Vaquera was worried about Nereida. When Nereida was taught in English during the first month, she had trouble.

“She didn’t understand,” Vaquera said.

Parents Shelly Willcutt and Sandy Alvarez also were in a difficult situation. Their English-speaking children could not continue in the program unless Vaquera and others like her chose to get a waiver.

“I just didn’t want to lose it after all those years,” said Willcutt, whose son, sixth-grader Christopher, has been in the program since kindergarten.

For Alvarez, it was a question of preserving her heritage. Although Hispanic, neither she nor her husband spoke Spanish when they were children. It wasn’t until she was sent to Puerto Rico that she began to appreciate her roots.

“I want her (Alvarez’s daughter, fourth-grader Alexis) to have the advantage of being bilingual,” Alvarez said.

Parents at Chavez Elementary in Norwalk echo Alvarez, saying they want their children to be bilingual, but nonetheless, most have decided to leave them in sheltered immersion. The school, which has almost 200 limited-English students, received only three waiver requests, said principal Izzy Cabrera.

The district gave parents a choice of three programs — bilingual education, sheltered English immersion and English only. Most parents chose sheltered immersion, since it allows teachers to speak to children in their native tongue.

“It’s good to learn to speak in English,” said Irma Delgado, whose daughter, first-grader Maria Luisa, is in sheltered immersion. However, Delgado said in Spanish, it would be too difficult for Maria Luisa to be placed in an English-only class until she becomes more fluent.

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