In first-grader Savath San’s home in Santa Ana, everyone speaks Cambodian. But in Room 41 at Madison Elementary School, Savath eagerly joins in as students in his class try to complete sentences in English read aloud by their teacher.
“My arms. . . .” teacher Jan Ortiz begins, giving the children their cue.
“Can shake,” the children shout in unison, shaking their hands vigorously, showing their mastery of what for all of them is a new language.
“My legs. . . .”
“Can run,” they squeal, running happily in place.
“My hands. . . .”
“Can clap,” they say, applauding so loudly that Ortiz has to remind them to keep it down.
The statements are rudimentary, simple declarations. But in this classroom, where all 33 children were born in Vietnam, Cambodia, Mexico or Laos, the exercise demonstrates how far bilingual education has brought them.
As educators worry over whether they are in compliance with the latest set of bilingual education regulations issued from Sacramento, or how they will find all the qualified people they need, first-graders such as Savath continue to soak up lessons — about colors, the alphabet and writing, the function of the arms and the legs, the rudiments of arithmetic.
More than three-fourths of Madison’s 1,300 students are considered limited in their ability to speak and comprehend English. These are children whose native language is Spanish, Vietnamese, Khmer, Tagalog, Cantonese, Japanese, Laotian, Filipino, Hmong and Tongan. At first glance, the task of educating them all, with the same curriculum across the board, appears mind-boggling.
“You can’t just give them a pill and all of a sudden they speak English,” said Madison Principal Diana Blazey.
But for 6-year-olds with a world to discover, the methods and manner are almost immaterial.
“With my eyes I can see,” the children in Ortiz’s class say, tugging at the skin under their eyes to emphasize the seeing.
“Savath, come up here, please,” Ortiz scolds, making him stand near the front of the group because he is giggling and bulging his eyes at another boy.
Savath was born in a refugee camp after his family fled Cambodia. He has almost no memory of any of that, but in his home the customs and the language of the old country prevail.
At school, he is in a bilingual-education program that teaches the students through the “immersion method,” which has been called the “sink-or-swim” approach, because all their instruction and their materials are in English. Teacher Ortiz, who is working toward her bilingual-teaching credentials, knows some Spanish, but it is of little use in this classroom because most of her students are Southeast Asian.
But every teacher working with limited-English students at Madison has some training in the way language is acquired, Blazey said, so they are sensitive to whether a child is not understanding a lesson because he doesn’t comprehend the subject matter or because he doesn’t know enough English. Ortiz also works with a teacher’s aide, Maly Ny, who is Cambodian.
In Ortiz’s class, one hour is set aside each day for “English as a Second-Language” instruction, which is devoted solely to teaching the children their new language.
For Spanish-speakers, who make up the bulk of Madison’s limited-English students in other classrooms, the school provides traditional bilingual-education classes. In these classes, the students are taught English for a few hours a day, but their lessons in math and other subjects are taught completely in Spanish in the first few years of elementary school, until they gain enough English fluency.
“That way they don’t fall behind in those subjects while they are learning English,” Blazey explained.
During recess, Madison’s playground is a cacophony of languages.
As they push each other on the swing sets or chase each other around the concrete-covered playground, many of the Latino children tend to speak to each other in Spanish, while the Asian children speak English among themselves as often as their native language.
“That’s because all the Hispanic children, whether they are from Mexico, Peru, Honduras or anywhere, can speak that one language, Spanish,” Blazey explained. “But the Asian children may come from Vietnam, or Cambodia, or another country, and every one of those countries has a different language. They have to speak English to communicate with one another.”