Prop. 227 has schools scrambling

Students, teachers and administrators in Santa Ana struggle to adjust in the early stages of the law's implementation.

In its first week, Proposition 227 has made Isabel Gervais’
first-grade class at Martin Elementary a little edgy.

During a math and language lesson, Gervais asks her students to
draw figures and numbers.

“Draw five squares. Five squares,” Gervais says.

Whispers ripple through the class: “Cual es un square? Cual es
un square?”

Students sneak peeks at their neighbors’ papers. Some draw
figures, then feverishly erase them, unsure whether what they’ve
drawn is what Gervais wanted. Then someone blurts out: “Es un
cuadro!” The classmates scribble five squares onto their papers.

In this atmosphere, kids timidly answer questions in English.
Some wince at Gervais’ English. Only last week their teacher spoke
to them in fluent Spanish.

As Santa Ana schools embark on their first week under
Proposition 227 _ which requires teachers to teach mostly in
English _ critics and advocates are voicing their concerns about
what students will learn.

Critics say Santa Ana’s implementation plan is allowing the
schools to refrain from teaching reading and writing until their
students can get waivers exempting them from the mandatory
English-immersion classes.

Teachers say they are left to create their own English-language
programs without adequate guidance, training or books and materials.

District administrators say they are trying to explain the
language of the law as best they can. But the district is short on
money and unable to provide much else.

“People don’t adjust easily to change,” said Howard Bryan, Santa
Ana Unified’s bilingual director. “Initially, there is going to be
some confusion until teachers and principals really digest the new
terms.”

Schools have had to redefine how they place their students. They
have also come up with definitions for terms in the law which are
open to interpretation, such as “reasonable fluency” and the
requirement that students be taught “overwhelmingly in English.”

They also have had to formulate procedures to accommodate the
provision of the law under which schools must review parents’
requests for waivers after students have spent 30 days in English
immersion.

But critics say some schools are using the initial 30 days as a
holding period.

“There’s going to be some dumbing down (of the program), if
teachers are pressured to get parents to sign waivers,” said Rosie
Avila, Santa Ana board member. “If (the district is) going to have
a 30-day Mickey Mouse program, where kids are just singing songs
and playing games _ that’s not an English-immersion program.”

But, teachers say, students formerly in bilingual classes are
back at square one.

“We are in kinder-English,” said Gervais, knowing some of her
students can write sentences in Spanish independently but can only
give one-word responses in English. “We’re in reading readiness.
They first have to get used to the sounds in English, then put the
sounds to the letters before we can do any reading.”

Gervais is gathering English phonics materials from other
teachers at her school. She has to teach her students sounds and
letters in English, a skill often learned in kindergarten.

“My concern is that down the line, these kids aren’t going to be
at grade level, and some of them aren’t there now,” Gervais said.

Teachers are scrambling for materials, sharing teaching methods
and waiting for some solid programs _ filling the gap between
policy and practicality.

Students at year-round schools also face long breaks _ something
teachers worry about.

Students in Santa Ana’s year-round Cycle A will get their first
week of English immersion, then go on a one-month vacation.
Teachers fear that while on break, students could lose both the
English skills they’ve acquired and the Spanish reading skills
they’ve learned.

So what will the initial 30 days of English immersion really
mean?

“Our students will be reading, writing and doing math from Day
One,” said Al Mijares, Santa Ana superintendent. “If any of our
principals view this as a period of incubation, it is completely
unacceptable.”

Proponents of Prop. 227 say the purpose of the 30-day period is
to expose children to intensive English in hopes that they will
learn more quickly and move into English mainstream classes faster
than through bilingual education. If a child is completely
frustrated, proponents say, then parents have the option to move
kids out of immersion.

However, some educators say that because of students’ varying
abilities, the short time line is questionable.

“There’s nothing magical about 30 days,” Mijares said. “I
challenge the merits of whether a 30-day period measures anything.”

Within one week’s time, Gervais’ class is chattering in English,
mimicking words Gervais reads from the blackboard.

But they have also started hugging her constantly during the
week. They cling to her, seeking reassurance as they struggle to
communicate beyond the limits of their English.

During a period of independent learning, 6-year-old Mariela
Martinez approaches Gervais with a message on a small dry-erase
board.

“Mariela le quiere Sra. Gervais,” it reads, followed by an
attempt to express the sentiment in English.

“I lo Mrs. Gervais.”



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