LOS ANGELES — Sprawled on the brightly colored rug, the English immersion students are reading about a bird with a broken wing, pint-size forefingers slowly tracing words that four months ago were a foreign language.
Then, teacher Eva Rodriguez-Chavez moves to a big writing pad propped on an easel for a quick review.
“All the animals helped bird get to his –” she says, writing out the words in avocado-green felt-tip.
“N-E-S-T!” the children spell triumphantly.
Three hundred and fifty miles away in San Jose, another first-grade reading lesson, this time in a class where parents have authorized bilingual education.
Six-year-old Anais marches to the front of the class, flips open a book about a boy who tries to get out of taking a bath and reads it straight through.
“Una vez invento algo increible (once he came up with something incredible),” she reads fluently, holding up a picture of the reluctant bather to the giggles of her classmates.
No question, students in both classes are learning.
But it’s still under debate who’s learning better.
Bilingual education supporters argue that children like Anais who start in their own language get the concept of learning faster and do better in all subjects when they switch over to English.
Opponents say too many children in bilingual education never do make the switch. They say children will only succeed by learning English first — and fast.
“If you have to lose a few months of academic progress, it’s better in kindergarten or the first grade than in the fifth grade,” says Ron Unz, the Silicon Valley millionaire who led the campaign against bilingual education in California.
Proposition 227, the ballot measure requiring that all students be taught in English, dealt bilingual education a mortal blow.
But it’s not dead yet.
Some schools broadly interpreted the instruction that classes be “nearly all” in English. And parents got an unexpectedly big say in the matter through a loophole allowing them to ask for reinstatement of bilingual education.
All the parents of children in Ms. Sandra Villarreal’s class made such requests, endorsing a program that aims to produce children who can read and write in Spanish and English by 5th grade.
All but one of the parents in Ms. Rodriguez-Chavez’ class plumped for immersion, meaning she squeezes in a little one-on-one Spanish instruction for that one student but teaches the rest in English.
At first, Ms. Rodriguez-Chavez expected the switch would mean a year of hammering away at the basics — “This is a book. That is a table.”
Instead, she’s been able to teach reading, math and some science.
There are anecdotal reports of similar progress in other immersion classes — “The initiative … is working out much better than opponents predicted,” Unz says.
But Ms. Rodriguez-Chavez credits her successes to the fact that “in every classroom there’s a group who will excel no matter what.”
She’s worried about the others.
“I feel that this is not the best way to be teaching, but it’s the law,” she says.
Hopping from one foot to another, glossy black heads bouncing in excitement, the children in Ms. Rodriguez-Chavez’ class are playing a math game, eyes fixed on a flashcard bearing the problem “7-1.”
“Eight!” yells one student, followed a shade later by the victor’s shout of “Six!”
In Ms. Villarreal’s class, students are working on “equaciones increibles” (incredible equations). The number for the day is 26. Among the children’s proposed calculations: 100-100+24+3+3.
In a second math segment, Ms. Rodriguez-Chavez teaches the decimal system, using sticks wrapped in bundles of ten.
When she asks the children how many bundles equal 40, quick-thinking Miriam deftly counts out four. Sitting next to her, doe-eyed Francisco is clearly at a loss. He scoops up all his sticks, then, with a sidelong glance at what Miriam is doing, discards all but four bundles.
But later, when Ms. Rodriguez-Chavez’ sole bilingual education student is reading Spanish words off flashcards, Francisco leans over and chimes in with the right answers.
“If he had had a waiver (back to bilingual education) there’s no doubt in my mind that he’d be reading,” Ms. Rodriguez-Chavez says.
Eyes gleaming with mischief, the children in Ms. Villarreal’s class huff and puff with gusto as they follow the adventures of the Three Little Pigs in English.
They seem to grasp the story well, but answer review questions — asked in English — mostly in Spanish, possibly because they usually have a different English teacher and are used to speaking to Ms. Villarreal in Spanish.
Although they are not yet learning to read or write in their second language, some show a fair command of spoken English.
“Don’t do it! Don’t do it!” yells Uvaldo as the wolf is waiting to exhale outside the house of straw.
In both classes, students generally speak to each other in Spanish.
But there is the occasional outburst of English, such as the heated debate in Ms. Rodriguez-Chavez’ class between science partners Jasson and Kenny over whether a lion is a mammal.
Reptile, said Kenny, claiming expert knowledge from a visit to the circus where “those lions didn’t give milk to their young.”
That drew a scornful look from Jasson, who tapped his stocky chest and declared, “They was MANS — that’s why!”
At day’s end, children in both classes stream out to waiting parents, most of whom speak little or no English.
Among those waiting outside Ms. Rodriguez-Chavez’ class was Maria Elena Lugo, there to pick up daughter Evelyn.
Mrs. Lugo said her daughter was in English immersion at the prompting of her husband. “He said it’s better to learn in English.”
What does she think of the class so far?
“Esta muy bien (it’s very good),” she said.