Studied As They Learn

Eyes are trained on Orange Unified as test of English immersion

ORANGE—In Mrs. Lightfoot’s second-grade class on a summer afternoon, 20 eager students are helping their teacher write a fishy fairy tale on the white marker board.

The 7-year-olds dictate an inspired sentence: “Once upon a time, there was a beautiful rainbow fish with lovely, shiny, shimmering scales.”

Most intriguing is which students speak up and what they say. Even though the lesson is in English, some students are more at ease in Spanish.

Austin Alva, a hand-waving boy who grew up speaking English, supplies several of the adjectives and insists on punctuating the sentence with a period. Perla Cruz, a ponytailed girl who is an English learner, tells Mrs. Lightfoot that “Once” begins with an “O.”

This scene from Taft Elementary School is one snapshot of how English immersion works at the pint-sized level, a viewpoint sometimes lost in the debate about how California schools should teach children who come from homes where English is seldom spoken.

Long before the Orange Unified School District decided to ditch bilingual education, before angry parents signed a petition in protest, before the English-first lobby launched an initiative and before a judge issued a restraining order last week that produced yet more upheaval, youngsters here were going to school to learn to read and write.

They still are. But the simple part ends there.

For, the question facing the district is not whether students who speak little English will get an education. Rather, it is exactly how they will grow this school year under a teaching system that is still in flux and under legal challenge.

At this point, answers are more elusive than opinions. Orange Unified educators acknowledge that the English program they want to begin–if the courts will let them–is a one-year experiment.

What happens in Orange Unified is being watched closely in Orange County and elsewhere because the 29,000-student district has launched the most aggressive challenge in years to state policies that favor native-language instruction for students who are not fluent in English.

At the same time, English-first proponents are seeking to put an initiative on the June ballot to dismantle bilingual education.

On Monday, a Sacramento County judge put a temporary stop to the district’s new English-immersion program just weeks after it had begun, ruling that there were “significant questions” about whether educators had taken enough steps to safeguard the rights of students who have limited English.

Orange Unified officials, who plan to contest the decision, said last week that they are still unsure what the new development will mean for the typical classroom.

More than half the district’s qualified Spanish-speaking teachers left this year after it became clear Orange Unified wanted to drop bilingual education.

“We are going to have a very patchwork kind of program,” said Neil McKinnon, an assistant superintendent, describing the district’s bilingual capabilities. “I don’t think it’s going to be good for kids.”

The Latino parents and advocates who sued the district disagree. Citing a pro-bilingual petition signed by 800 supporters, they say many kids from immigrant families need help in the language they know best to ensure they won’t fall behind in other subjects while learning English.

Orange Unified teachers and administrators say students are largely unaware of the controversy. But they are the most important players in it.

Taft, unlike other Orange Unified schools, had not used the traditional California model of bilingual education: elementary classes taught mainly in Spanish. As a result, last week’s court order probably would not affect this school, district officials say.

Students at schools elsewhere that have used native-language instruction are now on break. Principals at some schools declined to let a reporter observe classes last week.


But the English-immersion revolution in Orange has been felt at Taft, where a quarter of the students come from Spanish-speaking homes and are classified as “limited English proficient.”

Taft teachers have specialized in English as a Second Language, or ESL, a technique that emphasizes vocabulary drills and visual and oral aids to help non-fluent students grow in English.

In previous years, the school had put its ESL students into separate classes. That led to English- and Spanish-speaking cliques on the playground, according to principal Lori Morgan.

In July, the linguistic segregation ended. Following new district policy, Morgan disbanded the ESL track. Now, all students, no matter what their English abilities, are placed in the same classes. Their teachers speak English all day, with occasional help in Spanish, and their textbooks are in English.

In Christine Lightfoot’s class, six out of 20 students have limited English skills.

That poses some tricky issues for a teacher who speaks broken Spanish. Is it better to slow down a lesson to ensure that all students comprehend what’s being said? Should students of differing language abilities help one another? Are some students intimidated by the English fluency of others?

Lightfoot, who has taught ESL classes in years past, said she believes an integrated English-immersion class will succeed. Besides using an occasional bit of Spanish, she also sings, plays guitar and gesticulates freely to make sure all students feel included.

Last year’s all-ESL class was “moderately successful,” she said, “but not to the degree this is going to be.” She added: “There doesn’t seem to be any walls between the children.”


In another room, first-grade teacher Teri Fish speaks more Spanish than Lightfoot but confronts the same challenges. Half of her students come from Spanish-speaking homes.

On this day, Fish led a show-and-tell session as her class sat cross-legged in a circle. She called on Juan Lopez, who stood up with his backpack and grinned shyly. He opened the pack for his teacher, who looked inside and whispered something to him.

Like Perla in Mrs. Lightfoot’s class, Juan proudly contributed one letter. He said the object he would show the class started with a “B.” One of his classmates guessed the answer: a book. Juan then pulled out the slim volume on “animales marinos,” or sea animals, for his classmates.

Fish said afterward that Juan is in the first stage of English development: listening. Later will come speaking, reading and writing.

“My philosophy is that we’re all learning at different speeds,” Fish said. “They know that it’s OK to be different, and that takes the pressure off.”

These classes are not sink-or-swim. But education experts say English immersion is not necessarily easy for students who aren’t accustomed to it. Neither classroom stocked Spanish books on the shelves. Virtually no Spanish was written on the wall decorations.

Reynaldo F. Macias, professor of education at UC Santa Barbara and director of the university’s Linguistic Minority Research Institute, said the most pressing issue in Orange Unified is the district’s lack of bilingual teachers to comply with the court order.

At Fairhaven Elementary School in Santa Ana, one district school with an acute shortage, only three credentialed bilingual teachers remain from a faculty that had about a dozen the year before.

“Are these kids going to have qualified teachers to be able to handle their instructional needs?” Macias asked.

“Kids are very resilient. But if what’s lost in this whole process is the opportunity to learn, then we’re not providing these kids with an effective education–I don’t care what language it is.”

Comments are closed.