SANTA ANA — Multimillionaire Ron Unz based his one-year plan to teach English to California’s immigrant children on Gloria Matta Tuchman’s first-grade classroom in the heart of Orange County.
But something got lost in the translation.
Unlike the model proposed in Unz’s Proposition 227, Tuchman’s program at Taft Elementary School is not a one-year wonder that will throw all limited English speakers into regular classes after a year. It is a multiyear “sheltered English immersion” program that teaches children in English with lots of visuals and an easy-to-understand vocabulary.
After first grade, some students move into mainstream classes. Others don’t.
Although Prop. 227 specifically proposes a “sheltered English immersion program not normally intended to exceed one year,” Tuchman and Unz insist that the ballot initiative is flexible.
“We put the language in ‘normally,’ we didn’t put ‘shall,’ ”
Tuchman said, about the one-year transition period outlined in the initiative.
“When you go to court, they mean two different things.”
But the discrepancy between Tuchman’s “model” program and the one-year plan outlined in the initiative has caused bilingual educators to cry foul. If the model doesn’t exist at Tuchman’s school in Santa Ana,
how will it work for the rest of California?
Immersed in English
A rumble of Spanish and English chatter rolls through the bright room as Tuchman prepares to start her class at Taft. On the blackboard, she neatly prints a sentence in English for the children to read and copy.
The uniform-clad first-graders care more about counting by twos and whether classmate Geraldine Delgado will get away with sucking her lollipop before lunch than they care about learning English before second grade. They like to talk — regardless of the language.
“The problem now is they won’t stop talking,” said Tuchman,
laughing about the English skills of her students.
With a soft voice and firm manner, the veteran teacher uses basic and repetitive English with pictures and a touch of Spanish to communicate with her class of limited English speakers. She often throws in American Sign Language — gleaned from the school’s program for deaf students — to illustrate her words.
“If you can teach the deaf to learn, write and speak surely you can teach the English learners,” said Tuchman, a co-sponsor of Prop.
227 and a candidate for state school superintendent in June’s election.
Taft enrolls 1,053 students in preschool to grade five. They are 65 percent Hispanic, 17 percent white, 12 percent Asian, and 4 percent black. About 30 percent are Limited English Proficiency (LEP) students.
It’s clear that Tuchman and her colleagues are doing something right.
Taft’s test scores on the Comprehensive Test of Basic Skills beat national averages. About 15 percent of the school’s LEP students are “redesignated”
from limited to fully English proficient each year. That’s about 10 percent more students annually than in the rest of the Santa Ana school district and across the state.
But Taft’s sheltered English immersion program is not a one-year plan.
The school offers a multiyear model where students begin to learn English in kindergarten by drilling alphabet sounds and singing songs in English.
Rather than transition into regular classes, most move to another year of immersion in first grade where they learn to read and speak in English by hearing English most of the time.
Taft Principal Bill Hart praises Tuchman’s program as a best bet for limited English speakers, but admits that it’s not a quick fix. For some students it takes two, three or more years to become fully proficient.
“I do know from experience that it takes time,” said Hart,
whose wife is a bilingual teacher in Orange County. “It takes time to develop the vocabulary.”
Is one year enough?
Researchers from UC-Riverside studied the immersion program and traditional bilingual programs in other Santa Ana schools for more than a year. They found that any organized program for English learners is better than none,
but regardless of the approach, it takes longer than one year for a student to become “academically” fluent in English.
“Even under the most optimal program we’re not talking about anything like the timeline that the Unz initiative is recommending,” said Douglas Mitchell, a UC-Riverside education professor and director of the California Educational Research Cooperative. “It’s not a realistic estimate of what it takes to become English language fluent.”
Mitchell found it hard to compare the bilingual and immersion programs because of the socioeconomic differences in Santa Ana. He said children in Taft’s immersion program generally came from higher economic backgrounds than students in the bilingual programs, giving them an educational edge from the first day of public school.
Other educators wonder if Taft’s program — no matter how successful
— will work as a prototype for schools statewide.
Howard Bryan, the bilingual director for the Santa Ana school district,
said his district offers transitional bilingual education at most of the district’s 32 elementary schools. While the immersion program works for Taft, Bryan said it may not work in other Santa Ana schools.
“It all depends on good teaching,” Bryan said, praising Taft’s staff. “You can have a great program design with poor teaching, it doesn’t lead to achievement.”
But Unz argues that the one-year model is workable and should be the goal. “One year is really all that’s necessary,” said Unz. “The children coming out of Gloria’s (Tuchman) class can certainly function well in an English language environment. ? In some cases, maybe it’s better if they stay in immersion for another year or two.
“That’s why we allow for waivers.”
Fears about the initiative
The proposition would allow parents of children who are older than 10 or who have “special needs” to seek a waiver to enroll in a bilingual class or to continue with immersion classes.
But opponents say the waiver process looks unwieldy and could prove inaccessible to many parents — especially immigrant parents who don’t speak English.
At least 20 students at a school would need to secure a waiver to form a bilingual class.
“It mandates 180 days of a single method of teaching,” said Kathleen Baca, a spokeswoman for the No on Prop. 227 campaign. “It’s pretty clear that it does not allow for flexibility.”
Another issue on the minds of bilingual teachers is Prop. 227’s restriction on the use of Spanish or other primary languages in class. The initiative states that classes should be taught “overwhelmingly” in English but does not specify how much of another language will be tolerated.
The initiative says that parents or legal guardians can sue teachers and administrators for “willfully and repeatedly” refusing to provide the option of an English-based program. Some educators fear that teachers could be sued for using too much Spanish, Vietnamese or Mandarin or that teachers would simply stop using primary languages altogether because of the threat of lawsuits.
But Tuchman, who occasionally uses Spanish in her classroom, says the initiative will not tie the tongues of teachers who use native languages or bar the help of bilingual aides.
“As a teacher, I would not have put something in so restrictive that I would be sued,” Tuchman said. “Heavens no.”
Taft parents are pleased
The mothers and fathers who walk their children through the middle-class neighborhood to Taft Elementary eagerly sing the praises of their neighborhood school.
“I think it’s better,” said Rosa Nodal, the mother of 5-year-old Victor. “They learn English here and Spanish at home.”
Many parents said they don’t worry if their child is bewildered by the English-based class at first because they want their children to learn English quickly and efficiently.
Brian Riajan-Bricia, 6, recently joined Tuchman’s first grade class.
He tested to a third-grade level in his native Spanish and could end up in the school’s gifted and talented class.
For now, he’s simply letting the English words soak in. He listens attentively to the instructions in English and watches other children to make sure he’s pulling out his scissors at the right time or lining up for recess on cue.
He admits to being scared because he doesn’t understand the language.
Tuchman calls on Brian when it’s time to switch the day of the week on the classroom calendar. Surrounded by his young classmates who sit cross-legged on the floor, he bravely stands up and shuffles through the laminated days of the week. Sensing his nervousnous, Brian’s peers shout, “Viernes!
(Friday!)” and “It begins with f.”
With their help, he quickly finds the word, hands it to Tuchman and returns to his spot on the floor.
Tuchman promises that it won’t take Brian long to be conversing in English with confidence.
“There’s never been anyone I haven’t been able to teach,” she says. “Every kid has the capacity to learn — every kid.”
Andrea Lampros covers education and Proposition 227. You can reach her at 925-943-8155 or P.O. Box 5088, Walnut Creek, CA 94596.