The 29 first-graders in Carolyne Guertin and Michelle Wrinkle’s class don’t know their place in the great bilingual education debate. They are just learning to sound out words and subtract five from seven by counting little plastic bears.
But a lot of people in Orange County are watching and listening to the class at Willmore Elementary in Westminster.
Last Feb. 8, the Westminster school district was the first in the state to receive permission to dispense with standard bilingual education, which requires districts to teach most students who don’t understand English to read and writein their native language.
Westminster’s year-old program provides bilingual aides to help explain the curriculum to the students. Spanish and Vietnamese have not been banned from the classroom. They’re just not heard as often.
A year into the experiment, teachers at the school say they like it, although it’s still too early to tell how well it is working.
But across Orange County, districts are looking to the Westminster model to address an increasingly polarized debate over the best way to teach California’s 1.2 million students who speak languages other than English.
“Westminster stood up before it was popular, but they were right; they were right then and they’re right now,” said Harald Martin, the new Anaheim City school board member who plans to ask his board to apply for a similar waiver at its meeting Tuesday.
In Guertin’s and Wrinkle’s class, the posters on the wall are in English. Students read and work in English. But students who don’t understand aren’t left to languish.
Morning math and reading lessons usually go like this: Guertin and Wrinkle explain the concept to the whole class. Then bilingual aide Maria Manibusan steps in for anyone who’s still confused.
“Sometimes I have to tell them in Spanish, this is what the teacher said,” Manibusan said.
Friday, the lesson was arithmetic. After the lesson, students broke into three groups. One group of English-only speakers reviewed the lesson with Wrinkle. The Spanish-only speakers got a quick translation from Manibusan. And a group of students who understood a little more English got one-on-one, patient instruction from Guertin.
“Cuenta. Cuantos te quedan? ” Manibusan asked a student in one corner of the room as the girl counted off a row of bears to solve a subtraction problem.
In almost simultaneous translation, Wrinkle asked another student across the room: “Count. How many are left? “
When the students break for recess, Guertin, Wrinkle and Manibusan squeeze into tiny chairs around a low table to talk about next week’s lesson.
To get permission to do away with primary language instruction, Westminster promised to have teachers spend an hour a week planning lessons with the aide. The district also offers voluntary after-school tutoring and spendseight days training new teachers in special methods to teach speakers of other languages, including the use of diagrams and how to work with aides.
“The aides are really the crux of the program; they are partners with the teachers,” said Tracy Painter, who oversees Westminster’s program. “We couldn’t run this program without them. “
Friday, the three women who lead 29 first-graders at Willmore discussed which students knew enough English to move out of Manibusan’s class. Then they went over Monday’s lesson to give Manibusan an idea of words she may have to translate ahead of time.
Guertin suggested they study the story “The Bear Went Over the Mountain. “
” ‘Cave’ is going to come up. ‘Mountain. ‘ The names of the people in the family,” she said.
Monday, Guertin will read the story and Manibusan will review it with the students who need extra help translating.
Principal Harvey Morris says the extra emphasis on English is making a difference at Willmore, where three in four students have trouble understanding English and where most of those students go back to homes and neighborhoods devoid of English.
First-graders Kevin Mojica and Oscar Aboites arrived for the first day of school speaking mostly Spanish. Now Kevin will tell you he can speak English “a little bit. “
Manibusan says the progress can be measured day to day.
“The other day I pointed to a picture and said the bear is walking,” Manibusan said. “And I was corrected. They said ‘No, Mrs. Maria, the bear is hiking. ‘ ” Manibusan has been a bilingual aide in the district for five years. She prefers the current method to primary language instruction, she says, because students are constantly exposed to English.
“They can get too comfortable in Spanish. “
Not everyone agrees.
Those who favor instruction in students’ primary language often cite a long-running study at George Mason University that compared non-English-speaking students immersed in English with students taught first in their native language.
In the long run, the researchers said, native-language instruction better prepared students for school. Poor immigrant children in particular seemed to fare better when basics were covered in their own language because manycame to the United States with little schooling.
Those who favor English-only have their own study to cite: a smaller-scale study of New York City schools that found that children exposed to English early moved into mainstream classes faster.
Yet another study released a few weeks ago found that all these conflicting studies are getting in the way.
Instead of trying to single out one method for all students, researchers should focus on identifying a range of approaches that work for children in their communities, said the report from a committee of the National Research Council and the Institute of Medicine.
The issue of local control has come to a head in Orange County, where a growing number of back-to-basics school board members believe traditional bilingual education _ and its emphasis on native language _ has failed.
“Kids want to speak English. They’ll be more successful if they speak English,” said Anaheim’s Martin. “Generation after generation came to this country and had to learn English. They learned it through the public school system, and that is how this country grew and got to be great. “
But because of a web of federal and state regulations, districts can’t make major changes to their programs on their own. And even the boldest departures from state rules, like Westminster’s, still end up using some Spanish or Vietnamese in the classroom.
The reason: Federal law says speakers of other languages must have access to the core curriculum. That requirement must form the basis of any bilingual education program; it’s why districts can’t dismantle their programs.
To meet the federal requirement, California has traditionally urged districts to teach some students in their first language.
“Primary language instruction” means students will be taught several core subjects in their native language, including reading, writing and grammar.
But the method requires bilingual teachers with special training. California is short about 20,000 such teachers, which means many districts don’t offer primary language instruction.
The idea of foreign languages in the classroom has become a sore point with those who think Americans should be speaking English.
Even some Hispanic parents have pulled their children out of programs, arguing that learning English quickly is essential to their success.
In 1995, the State Board of Education amended some rules to address these issues. Since then, districts have been able to dispense with the primary language requirement if they could prove their alternative program worked.
Westminster was the first to jump in, arguing the teacher shortage made it impossible to teach children in their native tongue.
The state Board of Education gave the district permission to proceed with its plan to use aides instead and inspired other districts to follow. Anaheim’s Magnolia School District soon applied for and received a similar waiver. Savanna is applying for one. And this week, Orange joined the movement toward English-only instruction.
“The state has given us latitude to maintain a program that is supported by our community that we feel is successful,” said Roberta Pantle, who oversees Magnolia’s program. “That is something we’re happy to capitalize on. ” So far, though, the movement is an Orange County anomaly. Other districts across the state have yet to stand in line behind the 29 first-graders at Willmore Elementary.