Largely Latino School Is Closely Watched For Reaction To Immersion

Education: After first week of English-only lessons, teachers tread carefully and parents take a wait and see attitude to see if the new methods are working.

She despises the new law. Dictionaries and textbooks from the now-junked bilingual program still sit on her classroom shelves. Spanish slips easily into her speech.

But no one can accuse Yvette Olivares-Estrada, a home-grown teacher from the barrio, of failing to carry out Proposition 227 with vigor.

Here in Room 17 of Christopher Dena Elementary School in East Los Angeles, Olivares-Estrada this week introduced her second- and third-grade students to the wall posters on which they would compile their new English vocabulary, starting with “I” and “My.” She read “There’s a Nightmare in My Closet” and led a quick game of “Simon Says.”

Almost everything was done in English–by someone who disdains English immersion.

“I’m still going to be the best teacher that I can be,” Olivares-Estrada said, “knowing full well that this program has no goals at this point. It’s vague. It’s sketchy.”

That it still may be. But in 47 Los Angeles Unified School District campuses–those that began new terms under year-round schedules–Proposition 227 became a reality this week.

And the experience of Christopher Dena Elementary posed a significant test. A quiet school in the middle of a Latino neighborhood, Dena was the first place targeted by a coalition of pro-bilingual activists hoping to convince parents to seek waivers out of English-only classes.

During the week, dozens of parents attended meetings on the changing curriculum, one organized by the Civil Rights in Public Education Network, a loose-knit alliance of teachers backed by the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund. The group hopes that parents–once informed of their options–will demand that their children be placed back into bilingual education.

The host of that meeting, speaking almost entirely in Spanish, told the parents that bilingual education was “backed by years and years of research” while the alternatives–two kinds of English immersion–were experimental. “They might work or they might not,” he said.

But few parents were immediately inclined to take the defiant step back to bilingual education. Most seemed to follow a cultural tendency of their native countries–to trust the advice of school authorities.

Typical was Marly Hernandez, whose son Dan moved Monday from a bilingual kindergarten into an English first grade. Attending a meeting one afternoon on parent options under the new system, Hernandez was not yet inclined to ask for a waiver to put her son back into bilingual education.

“Let’s see what happens first,” she said. “I’m going to try it out. If I don’t see him making any progress, then I’ll think about a change.”

Still, Hernandez fretted that many students might be intimidated by the language switch. And she noted sharply that she had not had a voice in Proposition 227–because she is not a citizen. The voters, she said, “decided for me.”

So if a new order had taken hold by Friday at this and dozens of other Los Angeles schools entering the post-227 era, it remained a fragile new order.

Tucked into a poor neighborhood southeast of downtown, between Olympic Boulevard and the Santa Ana Freeway, Dena Elementary is the sort of school guaranteed to take the full brunt of the anti-bilingual education initiative voters enacted on June 2. Proposition 227 won 61% support from an electorate that was largely white and middle- to upper-class.

Of 1,050 students from kindergarten through fifth grade, 87% are classified as “limited English proficient,” more than triple the statewide average. Of those, virtually every one speaks Spanish at home. Almost every student carries a ticket good for a free or cut-price lunch. Crowding forces the school to keep its doors open year-round.

Although there are plenty of students from Mexico and other Latin American countries, many others appear to be U.S.-born children of immigrants, judging from the names on the ID cards atop their desks: Andy, Dan, Stacey, Walter and Judith.

Until this school year, most of those youngsters were learning to read and write in Spanish in the crucial first years of elementary school, with English reading phased in later.

Dena’s faculty is largely a veteran group. Many grew up bilingual or became bilingual by training. And they insisted in interviews that, whatever the faults of bilingual education elsewhere, it had worked in their classrooms.

But perhaps it was their seasoning that enabled these teachers to adapt when the first group of students, known as Track A, was thrust into English immersion classes Monday. Other tracks start in September and October.

Even before the transition began, teachers were swapping ideas, loaning each other English storybooks and pulling old work sheets out of the closet, garage and library. Fresh photocopies from an English phonics reader helped plug the desperate void for instructional materials in a school that recently invested tens of thousands of dollars in new Spanish readers.

One teacher volunteered to test-pilot an English phonics series from another publishing company–a handy stratagem for getting free sample materials.

All the improvisation was necessary because the school district has not yet drawn up a detailed curriculum for English immersion.

“We’re kind of on our own,” said Shirlee Wolf, a third-grade teacher who learned Spanish as a Peace Corps volunteer in the Dominican Republic. “But just getting together and talking among ourselves, we can pass along a lot of good ideas.”

Of course, the teachers were not all smiles about the new system. Many lamented that teaching reading skills to the youngest students–formerly done in Spanish–would take a back seat to teaching them the basics of listening and speaking in English.

Molly Johnson, a first-grade teacher, has worked here 30 years. That’s long enough to have taught the young Olivares-Estrada. Long enough to have earned her bilingual credential after studying Spanish on her own for eight years. Long enough to have witnessed–and survived–repeated flip-flops on language policy in the state’s largest school district.

“I have seen it come and go,” Johnson said. “I can remember when we were not allowed to put anything in Spanish on our walls, and when we were not allowed to put anything in English on the walls, and when we were required to put both languages on the walls, in color codes.”

On Tuesday, the last Spanish-language poster in Johnson’s room hung by her desk. “El Rinconcito de la Maestra,” it read, “Teacher’s Little Corner.”

Johnson wasn’t sure whether she would be allowed to keep it.

District and school administrators spent the first few days trying to resolve such matters, answer questions and make policies on the fly. Johnson’s poster was allowed, her principal ruled, but a Spanish alphabet was not.

The district’s superintendent, Ruben Zacarias, finally put out a memorandum clarifying that the initiative does not ban the use or display of teaching materials in Spanish, and does not prohibit the use of any Spanish in the classroom or on the playground.

“Punitive action against anyone who is speaking a language other than English will not be tolerated,” Zacarias wrote, emphasizing his point in bold.

That’s a good thing for Dena Elementary. Otherwise, lots of students would have been dinged for chatting with friends and asking teachers questions in Spanish. And many teachers would have been dinged for helping students who couldn’t understand them in English.

Still, there are limits. Principal Karen Robertson had this advice for teachers on when it is appropriate to switch languages: “It’s still permissible to use Spanish, but it has to be connected to what you’re trying to accomplish in English.”

The assistant principal, Carolyn Haselkorn, led a teacher workshop one morning on how that rule works in practice. Holding up a copy of “Los Tres Cerditos,” Haselkorn said teachers could read their students the Spanish version of a famous fairy tale–so long as they spoke only English when they followed up with activities and skits such as building their own mini-houses of straw, wood and brick and acting out the parts of the Big Bad Wolf and the Three Little Pigs.

The teachers bought the approach. Though some Los Angeles teachers have signed pledges to resist Proposition 227, most were in a mood to cooperate. When one veteran complained that she had been “scrounging” to find materials to use in English, another immediately volunteered her stock of English readers.

But the teachers were outraged when Haselkorn passed out copies of the new state standards for English language arts–reading, writing, listening and speaking. By the end of first grade, the document said, students would be expected to “read aloud with fluency in a manner that sounds like natural speech” and “write brief expository descriptions of a real object, person, place or event, using sensory details.”

“So it doesn’t matter if the children don’t speak the language–they still have the same goals?” one incredulous teacher asked.

“You do the best you can,” Haselkorn said.



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