Breaking language barriers

Model Roseland program under fire

In a portable classroom on the campus of Sheppard School in Roseland, there’s something going on that voters may outlaw June 2.

Anna Solano, the teacher of this group of fifth- and sixth-graders, is speaking Spanish. There’s English, too, but Spanish is the native language of all but two of her 31 students, some of whom have been in this country less than a year. While they understand enough English to get by on the playground, Solano needs to use Spanish to explain the math, science and literature concepts that these kids will need next year in middle school.

But Solano’s teaching methods — and the methods of teachers of nearly 1.4 million of the state’s schoolchildren — are under fire. In June, Californians who vote on Proposition 227 will decide whether it’s better to teach kids academics using their native language or to require them to learn to speak English before moving on with their other studies.

Depending on whom you ask, the decision could set back education in California 30 years or it could reform a system that keeps immigrant children from joining the mainstream by denying them the most basic educational tool: English.

Angel Cuevas, a student in Solano’s class, has his own answer.

“I was in an all-English class in second grade, and I didn’t understand a thing,” he said. “Since then I’ve been in bilingual classes, and I can tell you I have learned a lot.”

Young Cuevas said all of this in perfect English.

Nowhere in Sonoma County is bilingual education a bigger issue than in the Roseland School District, where half of the students come from homes where English is a foreign language.

In the past 10 years, immigrants have flocked to the Roseland area, swelling the number of “limited-English-proficient” students by more than 500 percent, said Superintendent Les Crawford. Today, 554 of the district’s 1,110 students are “English learners.”

Roseland’s demographics are more dramatic, but they look a lot like California’s: Since 1985, the number of English learners in the state’s public schools has ballooned from fewer than 600,000 to almost 1.4 million — 25 percent of the state’s total student population.

Many school districts in California struggle to accommodate the growing need to educate non-English-speaking students. Roseland is no exception.

“It’s been rather staggering,” Crawford said of the influx of immigrant children to Roseland’s two schools. “It has brought its own trauma and pain, but we have absolutely turned it into a positive.”

Hiring practices have changed, new language programs have been instituted, even the “parent hot lines” have been expanded to offer information in five languages.

Three years ago, the community was divided by a painful debate that resulted in the dismissal of six classroom aides who spoke only English, and the hiring in their place of aides who could communicate with children and parents who speak only Spanish or the languages of Cambodia, Laos and Eritrea.

Roseland has become a model district for teaching not only English learners, but students who already are fluent in English. Roseland Elementary and Sheppard Elementary are part of Stanford University’s “Accelerated Schools” program, which encourages increasing academic expectations in neighborhoods where poverty and crime might otherwise have the opposite effect. Teachers from around the country will gather at Sheppard this summer in a Stanford program aimed at spreading the school’s “powerful learning” techniques, which increase teaching effectiveness, Crawford said.

While the schools’ overall test scores are relatively low and the Roseland neighborhood is one of Santa Rosa’s most impoverished, its schools draw students from around the city. Crawford said 10 percent of the district’s students live in other neighborhoods and transfer to Roseland largely because of the district’s language programs.

Steve Nielsen, principal of Hidden Valley Elementary in Santa Rosa, sends his two children to Roseland Elementary’s two-way Spanish immersion program.

“People often make suppositions about a school based on the neighborhood or its test scores,” Nielsen said. “I can attest there is more than that to determining the quality of a school.”

He said he and his wife chose Roseland not just so their children will learn Spanish, but to expose them to the cultural variety represented in the district’s diverse mix of students.

To serve that mix, Roseland’s schools offer a variety of options for students with limited English skills.

They can enroll in the popular English/Spanish immersion program, a seven-year course of study that puts English speakers and Spanish speakers in class together with the goal of producing sixth-grade graduates fluent and literate in two languages.

They can choose what is known as a “late-exit bilingual” program, where most of the academic basics are taught in Spanish in the early years, with more English introduced into the curriculum as the students get older.

Or they can be placed in “English as a second language” or “English language development” classes, where students from a variety of language backgrounds, including English, learn from teachers who speak only English but are trained with special skills aimed at helping non-English speakers. Classroom aides from a variety of language backgrounds also are available to help.

“There’s not one right way to do it — the issue is too complicated to fix with one silver bullet,” Crawford said, criticizing the ballot initiative on bilingual education but also describing his own district’s response to the influx of immigrants.

“It is incumbent on us as educators to figure out what we need to do to meet students’ needs. Our responsibility is to teach children the best way we can, regardless of our political beliefs.”

Parents who have chosen Roseland’s myriad programs don’t mention politics when they explain how they made those choices.

“It’s simple,” said Marta Valencia, whose children have learned both English and Spanish in Roseland’s two-way immersion program. “I want my children to speak English. But I also want them to be able to read and write in Spanish.”

Her children, Eric and Mayra Madrigal, spoke virtually no English when they started at Roseland, she said. In the two-way immersion program, they joined English and Spanish speakers who in kindergarten are taught together almost entirely in Spanish. More English is used in each successive grade, and by sixth grade the curriculum is about half English, half Spanish. The goal is to produce students who are truly bilingual and biliterate.

“They have both done great,” said Valencia of her ninth-grade son and sixth-grade daughter. “My son got a special diploma from Roseland signed by Bill Clinton, and my daughter gets some of the highest grades in her class.”

While the majority of the 221 students enrolled in Roseland’s two-way immersion program come from Spanish-speaking backgrounds, more and more are from Anglo households.

Nielsen, the Hidden Valley principal, wanted his kids to grow up bilingual and bicultural in honor of both his heritage and that of his wife, Elisa Regalado. He said the Spanish language instruction is important to him, but so is the cultural diversity of Roseland Elementary.

“I believe the broader world view is very important,” he said. “And regardless of how they use it in the future, bilingualism will always be a viable job skill.”

At the other end of the spectrum, several Spanish-speaking parents at Sheppard school have opted not to place their children in bilingual classes, preferring that they learn to speak English by hearing only English in class.

“The official language of the United States is English,” one Spanish-speaking parent wrote to the school after administrators suggested her children be placed in a bilingual classroom. She agreed to share the letter with the newspaper but asked that her name not be used.

In the response, written in Spanish, the woman said she believes it is beneficial for her children to be bilingual, but a bilingual classroom is a “confusing” place where “children and teachers have to work twice as hard to proceed with their education.”

She and her husband teach their children to read and write and speak Spanish at home, while school is a place for them to learn English, she wrote.

Another mother, Irma Oregon, has two children who have graduated from high school, another at Elsie Allen High, one at Sheppard and another who will be in kindergarten next year. Despite advice from various elementary schools that her kids be in bilingual classes, she has chosen to have them taught in English.

“I’m definitely so glad that I didn’t listen to anybody else,”she said, noting they learn plenty of Spanish at home. But she said even though she believes English-only classes are best for her kids, parents should be able to choose for themselves. She said she is not sure how she feels about Proposition 227.

Francisco Andrade, another Sheppard parent, chose “late-exit” bilingual classes for his two children. There they are learning subjects, such as math and history, in Spanish and receive English language instruction during a separate part of the day.

“Their language is improving,” Andrade said of his second-grader and kindergartner, who spoke only Spanish before starting school. “They are learning both languages.”

Guadalupe Miranda, a sixth-grader, came to Sheppard from Mexico in the middle of last year. He spoke enough English to be placed in a class with a mix of native English speakers and students for whom English is a second language. The class was taught in English, and Guadalupe quickly found himself feeling lost as he struggled to read books on math and history and literature.

“It was hard,” he said. “I didn’t understand anything. I couldn’t talk to the other kids; they didn’t like me.”

This year, he is in Solano’s class, surrounded by kids whose native language is Spanish.

“I’m speaking better English,” Guadalupe said. “I’m learning a lot more than last year.”

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