At Martin, the change will be swift, universal

EDUCATION: The Santa Ana elementary school is 85 percent limited-English.

SANTA ANA, CA—Third-grader Eddie Alvarado rolls the name of Greek god Apollo off his tongue.

“A-po-yo, Apol-lo,” he mutters, first pronouncing it in Spanish, then in English.

His teacher, Chris Damore, puts a tape in a boom box. Out from the speakers rises a theatrical voice, an elegant reading of Greek tales.

Eddie softly mimicks the sounds: “cooed and thronged. ” He giggles aloud as he fumbles with the foreign words.

In Damore’s third-grade class at Martin Elementary, all his students are learning in English. For many who started in bilingual classes, it is a startling change.

About 85 percent of Martin Elementary’s 989 students are classified as limited-English proficient. Most came to school knowing little or no English.

Several methods were used to help kids learn English before Proposition 227 _ the initiative which mandates that California’s 1.4 million limited-English students learn in English. Some students were in bilingual classes, learning to read and write in Spanish before moving to English. Some were immersed in English beginning with kindergarten.

Under Prop. 227, all of Martin’s students will have to learn English through one method: immersion. And Damore’s third-grade class is a metaphor for the entire school, district and community: It is in transition.

“Most of us don’t know what’s going to happen,” said Isabel Gervais, a first-grade teacher who began the school year teaching students to read in Spanish, and will start teaching in English this week. “Some of my students are just picking up how to decode in Spanish. It’s going to be difficult to see them struggle with reading in English. “

During silent reading time in Gervais’ class, Alicia Rodriguez hovers over her book, half-standing, half-sitting in her chair.

Rodriguez reads in a brisk whisper: “Que pa-sa si se pier-de?

di-jo Sa-ra. ” She bobs her head up and down with each syllable, setting her dangling earrings into a rhythmic dance. The words ring in her ear with familiarity, like the words which roll off her mother’s tongue.

Teachers say a vast majority of the school’s parents speak only Spanish. A few fathers, because they work in service jobs _ grocery stores, restaurants and auto-repair shops _ are more exposed to English. Most mothers are nannies, housekeepers or homemakers and are less exposed to English. Most parents and younger kids know what educators call “survival” English _ just enough to get by.

Financially, families are earning just enough to get by also.

Martin is surrounded by single-family homes, but, administrators and teachers say, sometimes two families squeeze into a three-bedroom house.

At lunchtime, kids carry white free or reduced-price meal cards, called “dollars,” to the lunch line. About 92 percent of Martin’s students qualify for free lunch, which means in a household of four the annual income is $ 21,385 or less. About 8 percent are on the reduced plan.

By day’s end, mothers pushing baby strollers encircle the front entrance of Martin, waiting to walk their blue-and-white uniformed kids home.

“It’s a working-class community,” said Damore, “and the language these kids use at home is Spanish. “

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