California Begins English-Only Rule in its Classrooms

Seated at a little table with about a half dozen Spanish-speaking kindergartners, teacher Teresa Mendina led a counting exercise one recent morning at Forty Ninth Street School. Using gestures, elongated enunciation and other techniques, Mendina managed to elicit English responses from the children.

The exercise was part of a fun-filled day during which they learned songs, the parts of the body and phonics–all in English.

Occasionally, though, snatches of Spanish were exchanged. “Empuja tu lengua en tus dientes (Push your tongue to your teeth),” said teaching assistant Dora Vasquez at one point after a little girl named Leticia pronounced the word duck as “uck.”

Two months ago in this classroom, where 100 percent of the pupils have limited English skills, the equation would have been reversed: 75 percent of the day would have been taught in Spanish, only 25 percent in English.

The June 2 passage of Proposition 227, the English-only law, has ushered in a new era in California public schools.

Bilingual classes are a thing of the past–or are supposed to be. English “immersion” classes, aimed at preparing immigrant children for regular classes in one year, are the law.

Once again, California, whose voters moved to abandon affirmative action and cut public benefits to illegal immigrants, has become a laboratory for an elaborate social experiment.

Though classes haven’t started for most students yet, an early snapshot of what is expected from the English immersion method comes from the handful of schools with year-round schedules.

Some school districts, including San Francisco, Berkeley and San Jose, are fighting Proposition 227 either by seeking state waivers from the law or protection under federal consent decrees. Others, such as the Los Angeles Unified School District, have acquiesced, so far encountering none of the dire predictions Proposition 227 opponents made about mass confusion and parental opposition.

Officials at almost all the districts, though, have experienced a measure of angst in being forced to rewrite curricula, train teachers, reshuffle classes, inform parents, order new classroom materials and consult with lawyers in a two- to three-month period.

The main sticking point with the law is a requirement that schools teach “overwhelmingly” in English. Does that mean 90 percent, 75 percent or is 51 percent English sufficient? The California State Board of Education, which isn’t expected to complete regulations clarifying Proposition 227 until November, so far has allowed districts flexibility in interpreting the law. Backers of the initiative believe, however, that with rare exceptions English should be used in the classroom all the time.

“Coming up with a clear policy is difficult when the language (of the law) is nebulous and not defined,” said Jack McLaughlin, superintendent of Berkeley Unified School District.

Last Thursday, an Alameda County Superior Court judge ruled in favor of Berkeley and 37 other districts, overturning the State Board of Education’s decision not to consider their requests for waivers from Proposition 227. Though the judge’s ruling doesn’t obligate the state board to grant the districts’ requests, it is expected to open the door for other districts to seek exemptions from the law.

The bilingual initiative was prompted by growing frustration over the low academic achievement and high dropout rate of students with limited English skills, who number about 1.4 million in California. A similar ballot measure is being considered in Arizona and a congressman has drafted legislation to cut federal funding for bilingual programs.

Approved by more than 60 percent of the voters, the law has put this state at ground zero in a simmering national dispute over bilingual education. Under the 30-year-old bilingual program, students are gradually weaned off native-language instruction as their speaking and academic proficiency in English improve. The reasoning is that they need to continue receiving native-language instruction in math, science and social studies–in some cases up to seven years–so they won’t fall behind while their fluency in English improves.

“Children are like sponges; the earlier you expose them to English, the quicker they’ll learn it,” said Frank Pejack, director of research at English First, a national organization that opposes bilingual education.

This new law is “greasing the skids of the movement,” he added.

But other experts are equally convinced about the merits of bilingual programs, when operated properly.

Bilingual education supporters attribute the high failure rate among immigrant students to a lack of good bilingual programs. Last year, only 30 percent of the limited-English-proficient students in California were enrolled in bilingual classes. With a statewide shortage of 25,000 bilingual teachers, they say, some schools have resorted to using less-qualified teachers or diluted programs.

“I agree that bilingual education needs some changes, but as far as deleting it completely, I don’t agree,” said Aixa Carbonell, assistant principal at Vaughn School in the San Fernando Valley.

As a charter school, Vaughn is exempt from state education regulations, including Proposition 227. Officials at numerous other schools, attempting to retain their bilingual programs, have asked the State Board of Education about re-establishing their operations as charter schools.

Proposition 227 requires districts to initially assign students with limited-English skills to English immersion classes for 30 days.

The first gauge of this new approach will come next month, when the initial wave of parents whose children started school in the summer will decide whether they are satisfied with the program or want the students reassigned to traditional bilingual classes. The law, though, makes it clear that schools should grant the waivers only under extreme cases, such as for students suffering from mental and physical disabilities.

Research and the experience of several California districts show that English immersion can be effective. But the biggest question, which can be answered only in the long term, is: Will the students in English immersion really be able to function with little or no assistance in a regular classroom after only one year?

On top of coping with opening day jitters last week, parents and pupils at Buena Vista School in San Francisco were anxious about Proposition 227.

Some children worried that they’d be hauled off to jail for uttering a single word in Spanish. And some parents feared the law would spell the demise of an award-winning bilingual program that not only taught native Spanish-speaking pupils English, but helped native English-speaking kids become fluent in Spanish.

Standing in the cafeteria/library before a group of 50 parents, Lisa Guiterrez-Guzman, the principal who goes by the title teacher-in-charge, quickly allayed the fears.

“We are going full speed ahead with our bilingual programs in San Francisco,” she declared. “We will continue to speak in Spanish at all times with your children.”

Guiterrez-Guzman explained that Buena Vista is complying with a 24-year-old federal court-ordered agreement that requires the San Francisco district to provide equal access to English learners through its bilingual education program. Though the district’s superintendent once vowed he’d go to jail before implementing Proposition 227, San Francisco schools are incorporating more English instruction into the classes and are pressing all parents to sign waiver forms intended to keep their children in the bilingual program.

The federal court-ordered agreement was sparked by a lawsuit filed against the school system by a Chinese-American student named Kenney Lau. The Lau vs. Nichols case led to a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 1974 that deemed as illegal American schools’ do-nothing or so-called “sink or swim” approach to immigrant students.

According to San Francisco district officials, graduates of the program routinely outperform their native English-speaking peers in reading.

District officials and parents justify their resistance to Proposition 227 by pointing out that three out of five voters in the city rejected the measure.

“Two-two-seven is a racist attack on immigrants and Latinos,” said Tracy Brown, 30, a Latina whose daughter and son attend Buena Vista.

Bilingual education “affirms our cultural identity and shows our children that Spanish is just as important as English,” she said.

That attitude has prompted threats of legal action from officials at English for the Children, Proposition 227’s sponsors.

“Most districts are finding non-legal ways to circumvent the law,” said Sheri Annis, the group’s spokeswoman.

The Los Angeles school system played a role–albeit an accidental one–in the campaign against bilingual education.

Ron K. Unz, a Silicon Valley software entrepreneur, was spurred to launch the initiative after learning about a boycott led by parents at an elementary school in the garment district who were dissatisfied with the bilingual program.

Parents at the school succeeded in pulling 75 students from the program in early 1996. Now the district is quick to point out that only two of the students who left the program have passed the English proficiency test. Meanwhile, eight of the 18 students who remained in bilingual classes passed.

Still, the district has gutted its bilingual programs, now requiring language teachers to instruct primarily in English. Some teachers express ambivalence about the new approach.

“If a child has English-speaking parents at home, it will work,” said Mendina, the Forty Ninth Street School kindergarten teacher. If not, it will be difficult for them to master English in a year, she added. “They’re only here half a day.”

Elsewhere in the state, schools that opted years ago to use the English immersion approach rather than bilingual methods have seen positive results.

One recent morning, Charlotte Watanabe conducted her kindergarten class at Bennett-Kew School in Inglewood completely in English, her nine Spanish-speaking pupils working alongside seven native English speakers.

Since the early 1980s, Bennett-Kew School, south of Los Angeles, has placed limited-English-speaking students directly into regular classes.

“I’m glad 227 happened,” said Watanabe, adding that in the past the Spanish-speaking children have made great strides toward English fluency after a year, outscoring their bilingual education counterparts at other districts. “The more English you know the better your chances will be of succeeding.”

At Maxwell School in Anaheim, limited-English-proficient students also have performed well.

But that progress has not come without extensive help–including Spanish-speaking tutors who spend an hour or so a day going over lessons–well into the upper grades.

“Schools have an obligation to provide support for these students to be successful in the program,” said Kris Lasher, the principal.

“You certainly cannot give them immersion for a year and then drop them.”

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