Teresa Garcia holds up a card – a cartoon of a bearded man – to
a room full of Spanish-speaking mothers like herself.
“What is this?” Garcia asks in a heavy Spanish accent.
“Be-ar-d,” the mothers utter in discord. “Bear-d,” they say
again to themselves.
Garcia and about 25 other mothers are playing a game of Bingo
using picture charts and words to practice the English they have
been learning at their children’s school, Esther Walter Elementary
Walter’s adult classes are among many programs that will be
sprouting up in Orange County this school year as part of
Proposition 227, the state initiative passed last year that
eliminated bilingual education and placed most limited-English
students in English-immersion classes. The initiative also promised
to pay schools to tutor adults in English – if those adults
promised to take their new language skills back into the community.
This year, Orange County schools received about $5 million of
the $50 million dollars in state tutoring money, which for several
months has been used to teach English to these mothers and
grandmothers at Walter.
Every Monday and Tuesday morning, they park their baby strollers
in the multipurpose room near their seats on a lunch-table bench.
There they write “airport,” “hospital” and “school” underneath the
corresponding pictures on a work sheet.
Some mothers carry sleeping babies on their backs while
scribbling notes into a three-ring binder. Others bring extra toys
for the toddlers, as the adults are drilled orally on English for 2
“I’m doing this for my children,” said Garcia, a mother of two
Walter students. “The more English I learn, the more I can help
with their homework.”
These adults learn to answer simple questions such as: “What is
your name?” They learn life skills: “Where is the hospital?” They
learn about people: maestro is “teacher” in English.
And in smaller groups, they learn tips on how to help their kids
learn English by using things around the house. A box of crayons
can be a tool to practice the colors in English. Rolling dice or
pulling cards out of a deck can help children memorize numbers in
This effort to teach adults is supposed to help foster English
in communities often isolated by language, but some say the idea of
making these parents and grandparents real teachers isn’t so simple.
“How do we know that what these adults are learning is getting
passed on to the kids?” said Anaida Colon-Muniz, Santa Ana
Unified’s director of elementary curriculum. “It’s not that easy to
GETTING A LATE START
Most schools went to English-only instruction by October. But
money for adult programs was allocated only last month, leaving
schools scrambling to piece programs together and costing parents
seven months of English learning that could have helped their kids.
Because the initiative passed at the end of the fiscal year, in
June, nearly a year lapsed before the money could be pulled out of
the general fund.
“We started so late it will be hard to assess how much this will
help kids under Prop. 227 this year,” said Marianne Smith, manager
of Placentia-Yorba Linda Unified School District’s second-language
program. “But we’re trying very hard to piggyback on (adult)
programs that we’ve already had in place.”
School districts received money for adult tutoring through a
simple formula: The state divvied up the $50 million the law set
aside among those districts that promised to create adult programs.
Of California’s 988 school districts, about 430 are creating
adult programs for their limited-English students this year. In
Orange County, 21 of 27 districts asked for state money to create
adult programs. Districts that skipped on the money, such as Buena
Park School District, say their limited-English populations are not
large enough to warrant the creation of adult classes.
Santa Ana received $1.4 million. Garden Grove Unified received
about $830,000. Magnolia School District received about $96,000.
Basically, districts are getting about $38 per limited-English
student this year. Schools will continue to receive funds for adult
programs for the next eight years under the law, which has set
aside $50 million annually for 10 years.
School districts say the task of educating adults in English has
long been left to local community colleges and social-service
“We’ve never really done anything like this before, so we’re
incredibly excited,” Smith said. “This could be something
Districts say attracting a steady flow of participants is a
major first step.
“The biggest concern is: If we build it, will they come?” said
Beverly de Nicola, principal of Capistrano Unified’s adult school.
“Our target population has major disruptions in their lives –
poverty being one of them.
“It’s hard for them to find the time to make a commitment to
come to our schools. Between jobs and taking care of the little
ones, parents are busy just trying to get by from day to day.”
Administrators say they can’t estimate how many parents in
Orange County will take English classes, as it is with many parent
programs. But they hope to open doors to foreign-born parents who
are often intimidated by schools because of cultural or language
Many districts plan to couple their English classes with family
literacy programs, in which parents and their children go to school
together and read. Beyond learning how to ask for directions or
find a job in English, these parents will learn about phonics,
decoding and different techniques to help their children read.
Placentia-Yorba Linda officials hope to siphon parents from the
district’s computer classes and family-literacy programs into the
district’s new English-tutoring classes. The overwhelming
popularity of the existing courses has helped bring parents to
Some districts also will offer night, morning and afternoon
classes, and provide child-care services while parents get tutoring
tips and English lessons.
Also, a few districts offer individualized programs in which
parents who hold more than one job, or are unable to commit to
classes, can learn through video and audio tapes in an
Some elementary districts have contracted out to local community
colleges so parents can get English training in a more traditional
English as a Second Language setting.
In creating these programs, schools face logistical concerns of
finding child care and transportation for parents and providing
classroom space. Also, it’s hard to find teachers – California has
a shortage of about 9,000 teachers qualified to teach
limited-English students. Districts such as Capistrano Unified are
trying a combination of strategies to get as many parents to help
tutor kids as possible.
But as with Walter school’s experience, parent turnover is a
fact of life.
“Many of our mothers work at night in factories, clean houses,
baby-sit kids,” said Waleska Hernandez, Walter’s parent
coordinator. “We lose one here and there because they get a job or
switch hours. It’s not always the same mothers who come to the
English classes, but we started with about 25 and we have 25
“We’ve really tried to get our parents involved and make them
comfortable as partners with the school. We say parents and
teachers together can make a difference.”
TESTING HOW IT’S WORKING
The toughest obstacle of the community-based tutoring program
will be measuring how much the adult tutoring will filter through
to the kids that need it, school officials say.
“There’s no use in implementing a program unless you can measure
the impact it has on the kids,” said Melodee Zamudio, director of
Irvine Unified’s language minority programs. “If it doesn’t
translate to improved results in student achievement, then it’s not
a wise way to expend our resources.”
Irvine school officials hope to monitor student achievement by
using Stanford 9 test scores and comparing the students’
performance after parents begin tutoring classes. If a marked
improvement is found in achievement in a child who gets tutoring
over one who doesn’t, administrators hope to increase
parent-tutoring classes, if possible.
Capistrano officials say they will test student and parent
levels because oftentimes students eventually outpace their parents
in learning English. A parent of a third-grader may be a better
candidate to help children in the first grade or kindergarten if
his or her skills are lower than his or her child’s.
And other districts say they will monitor parents’ English
skills through reports on job promotion and placement, and
increased knowledge of English.
But both parents and school officials know it will be a while
before parents can confidently use the skills they learn in English
class to tutor students.
“It’s going to take time,” said Trudy Cunningham, principal of
Walter School. “These parents come to us with different learning
levels just as their children do. It will be a while before they
will be up to speed and be able to tutor.”
Many Spanish-speaking parents expressed concern about relying on
parents to teach students.
“We’re asking parents who are not experienced teachers to teach
our children,” said Maria Torres, a Santa Ana parent. “Many of us
are struggling with the language ourselves.”
Garcia, who struggles with some of her first-grade daughter’s
English lessons, agrees.
“My daughter is teaching me things she learns: sentences and
words. And we find ourselves teaching each other,” said Garcia.
“It’s intimidating for the both of us sometimes.”