School - and verdict - is out after first year of anti-bilingual education law

SAN JOSE, Calif. (AP) – Shrieking with laughter, the children race
around the playing field, gleefully soaking classmates and teachers
alike as the green grass under their feet takes on a slick patina of
mud.

“Mas agua! (More water!),” they yell, barely recognizable as the
crisply dressed youngsters who filed into class last fall for their
first year under Proposition 227, California’s anti-bilingual education
law.

As Sherman Oaks Elementary ends the year with a traditional water
fight, the children of Sandra Villarreal’s class have reason to
celebrate: They’re passing first grade.

The verdict’s still out on Proposition 227.

“It’s probably too early to tell,” says state schools chief Delaine
Eastin. “I’m sure it’s safe to say those at either extreme, those who
predicted extreme failure and disasters or those who predicted complete
success and total transformation, may be disappointed.”

Proposition 227, which passed in June 1998, junked California’s
30-year-old system of bilingual education and replaced it with one year
of English immersion.

As it turned out, that wasn’t the last word on bilingual education.

Some school districts interpreted the instructions to teach “nearly
all” in English as meaning 30 percent in Spanish was OK, while thousands
of parents exercised a loophole allowing them to put their children back
in bilingual programs.

Still, many bilingual classes were scrapped, leading to the third big
development – reports by teachers in Southern California, home to the
bulk of the state’s old bilingual programs, that English immersion
students were learning to read and even write.

This month, the district of Oceanside, near San Diego, released test
scores showing a marked improvement. Last year’s limited-English
second-graders, for instance, scored in the 12th percentile (meaning
they scored as well or better than only 12 percent of the national
sample). This year’s second-graders were in the 24th percentile.

Ron Unz, the software millionaire who coauthored Proposition 227,
says Oceanside is an excellent benchmark because all bilingual education
was eliminated for the more than 4,000 limited-English speakers.

“I can’t think of any education reform anyone’s ever performed that
has produced results that quickly,” he says.

The scores don’t track individual students or account for other
reforms, such as Oceanside’s revised curriculum.

But, says district spokeswoman Cindy Sabato, “there is something to
be said for Proposition 227.”

On a warm May morning at Sherman Oaks, six-year-old Trana shakes with
indignant sobs as he blurts out his tale of recess woe.

“He pushed me. And I wasn’t teasing,” he declares, his English coming
readily even though Vietnamese is his first language.

But for a spelling test, Trana is at a loss for words, chewing on his
pencil and tapping a Superhero sneaker on the floor before scrawling
“wan” for “when,” and “bgoib,” for “drive.”

Trana is in English immersion because the school only offers
bilingual education in Spanish. (According to the state Education
Department, only 30 percent of limited-English speakers were ever in
full bilingual education.)

Bilingual experts say students like Trana are an example of what’s
wrong with English immersion; students pick up “playground English,” but
miss what’s happening in the classroom.

In class, teacher Jolynn Linn struggles to pick up on nuances – it
took her a while, for instance, to determine that a Spanish-speaking boy
had a learning disability as well as a language barrier. “That’s the
hardest thing to figure out.”

Trana is doing much better than last year and she thinks he’ll catch
up by 2nd or 3rd grade. (Proposition 227 says English should be learned
in one year, but Unz says districts have discretion if that doesn’t
happen.)

Unz says teaching students like Trana in their first language
handicaps them.

“First-graders generally aren’t that great at spelling,” he says. “I
think, on the other hand, if he were only taught spelling in (his first
language), which would be the case in the bilingual program, it would be
even harder for him to learn English two years down the road.”

The carefully penciled numbers on Tanya’s math test sum up her year
in Ms. Villarreal’s class, which by parental demand returned in October
to a dual-immersion program that aims to have children reading and
writing in Spanish and English by fifth grade.

Tanya, who spent kindergarten in an English classroom, couldn’t add
8+5 or manage more than a few letters of dictation in September. This
spring, she got all but two of the 16 math questions right and a nearly
perfect score in dictation.

“She has just taken off,” Ms. Villarreal says.

On the last day of school, Tanya and the rest of Ms. Villarreal’s
students mark a rite of passage with the changing of the chairs,
dragging in the larger models they’ll use next year as second-graders.

The neat hair-dos and shiny shoes of fall have been replaced by
cowlicks and flip-flops; the children who sat wide-eyed and silent last
fall, straining to follow the unfamiliar English, now chatter wildly in
Spanish. (“I am just counting the minutes,” mutters Ms. Villarreal.)

Finally, they stream outside for the great water fight.

This being an ordered universe, teachers make the rules. They get
Super-Soakers; the children, pint-sized models.

“Angel! Alex!” Ms. Villarreal whoops as she advances on two
mischievous boys.

When everyone has been thoroughly soaked, the children trail out to
the parking lot as their teachers link hands and sing, with gusto, “It’s
the most wonderful time of the year.”

Next fall, Ms. Villarreal’s students will be back as the struggle to
teach California schoolchildren English continues, one classroom at a
time.



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