Educators review lessons of Prop. 227

UPDATE: A year after the English-only schools initiative passed, there's still a lot to learn about teaching children who don't speak the language.

Proposition 227 was sold as a simple solution to one of California’s most vexing education problems: The best way to teach the state’s 1.4 million limited-English students, proponents said, was to do it in English.

A year after becoming law, the most obvious lesson from the exercise is that one year is not enough time to draw conclusions.

But some of its lessons are apparent, based on test scores, school language census reports and interviews with teachers, parents and students:

Prop. 227 did not devastate bilingual students as critics feared, or leave them without support.

To the surprise of many teachers, students adjusted quickly to English immersion.

Teacher training is crucial to student success.

Parents were active in choosing which method of instruction was best for their children. For the past year, Orange County Register reporters have documented the effect in local schools of Prop. 227, which 61 percent of state voters backed in June 1998.

At many Orange County schools, change was hard to detect. Even before the initiative, less than 13 percent of Orange County’s limited-English students were taught in Spanish.

But in classrooms affected by the new law, here is what reporters found:


At Martin Elementary in Santa Ana, 7-year-old Raquel Morales spent her year under 227 learning mostly in English.

She struggled at first, said her teacher, Shelley Maxwell, but progressed gradually.

Maxwell emphasized English reading and writing. She wallpapered the classroom with words frequently

found in English books, like “they,” “the” and “are.” She taught vocabulary using cutouts and props. She drilled students with flash cards. In a lesson about flowers, students put paper parts of a flower together as they learned words such as “stem,” “petal” and “leaf.”

By the end of the school year, Raquel was writing sentences in English on her own when once she could only write them in Spanish. A journal entry dated June 9, 1999, read: “The turkey is colorful. The turkey he is fat.”

Prop. 227 called for English learners to study in special classes for about a year before being placed in classes with fluent students. But most students need more time in special instruction.

Only 6.5 percent of Orange County’s limited-English students ? the vast majority of whom were taught full time in English ? tested high enough to qualify as fluent this year.

Test scores shed more light on how long it takes to learn English. Scores for limited-English students lagged far below those of fluent students.

In second-grade reading, for example, Orange County limited-English students scored in the 28th percentile ? the best score for any grade of limited-English students. Fluent second-graders averaged in the 63rd percentile in reading.

Despite the challenges, Spanish-speaking children said they were happy with English immersion.

“I like learning English,” Raquel said timidly. “I have fun.”



Prop. 227 frightened Patty Leong, a second-grade teacher at Dana Elementary School in Dana Point, because it seemed like popular opinion ? millions of voters who know nothing about teaching ? was dictating how to do her job.

But reading scores among Dana Elementary’s 54 second-grade limited-English students jumped to the 27th percentile this year from the 13th percentile in 1998. Leong credited the district’s support and training programs ? not just the language switch ? for her students’ success.

Leong’s class included Dana’s second-graders with the least English skills. By June, three of her 20 students were ready to be redesignated as fluent.

“Before, that usually wouldn’t happen until the end of third grade,” said Leong, who has taught bilingual education for nine years.

Leong voted against Prop. 227. Today, she would vote for it.

“It turned out a lot better than I thought,” she said. “Next year, I expect my class to do even better because they will have another year of English.”



In Orange County, the number of students learning in bilingual programs dropped from 17,000 to about 6,000.

In Santa Ana Unified School District, the parents of nearly 5,000 children at more than a dozen schools signed waivers to place their kids in bilingual classes rather than immersing the children in full-time English.

Most of this year’s waiver applications are due in September; Howard Bryan, bilingual coordinator for the district, expects a lot of new applications.

Santa Ana is considering asking the state for schoolwide waivers at 12 elementary campuses where more than 50 percent of the parents requested bilingual waivers.

Edwin Olmedo, 7, spent his first-grade year under Prop. 227 learning in both Spanish and English through a bilingual program at Martin Elementary.

His teacher last year, Teresa Fisher, assigned Edwin to write and illustrate books in Spanish about insects and sea creatures. Fisher held weekly book fairs, where students sat in the Rincon de Autores y Escritores (Authors and Writers Corner) and read self-published books into a karaoke microphone.

Words in both languages plastered the walls: “grillo” next to “cricket” and “mariquita” next to “ladybug.”

Now in second-grade and again in a bilingual class, Edwin blurts out answers in English when his new teacher, Maureen Elstead, reads a book about polar bears in English. He translates from English to Spanish the puns and jokes the boys at his table didn’t get.

“I want him to speak both languages,” said his mother, Silvia Olmedo. “My older sons did really well in bilingual programs, and I wanted Edwin, my youngest, to have the same.”



Many teachers believed that with the passage of Prop. 227 came the end of extra teacher training. Teachers who dealt with limited-English students had to earn a Cultural Language Academic Development, or CLAD, certificate.

“Teachers thought they didn’t need the CLAD anymore,” said SAUSD’s Bryan. “But Prop. 227’s provisions require that more teachers get training.”

Bryan says the district ushered hundreds of teachers through the CLAD certification programs this year as part of Prop. 227’s implementation. However, Bryan says the number of trained teachers trails the number of students who need extra help.

In 1997, 660 Orange County teachers were qualified to teach bilingual classes, with 447 teachers still in training. About 2,900 teachers were certified to teach English-immersion classes, and about 2,000 teachers were in training.

The next year, the number of bilingual teachers in the county fell, but about 1,000 more teachers were qualified to teach English immersion.

Martin Elementary’s Elstead, a veteran bilingual-education teacher, says bilingual programs were difficult to implement properly because of the lack of qualified teachers.

“The problem with bilingual education is that you must have strong teachers for it to work,” Elstead said. “A teacher who has weak Spanish skills weakens the chain.”



Critics accused Prop. 227 of applying a one-size-fits-all solution to the needs of California’s 1.4 million limited-English students. But the initiative allowed choices for parents.

Demand for instruction in Spanish also flourished outside Santa Ana, in communities with low concentrations of immigrants.

At Gates Elementary in Lake Forest and Las Palmas Elementary in San Clemente, parents organized to save dual-language immersion programs, meant to make students fluent in Spanish and English.

They received permission to become charter schools and establish alternative “academies” to preserve the programs. Despite criticism of trying to circumvent 227’s English-only rules, the parents’ campaigns attracted more applications than ever for the language programs.

“Parents have been pressuring the school to add more classrooms so more kids can transfer,” said Margaret Wallerstein, whose daughter Cassidy is entering fourth-grade at Gates. “My daughter got in the 99th percentile in English reading. I think it’s a huge benefit to be bilingual.”

Elizabeth Chey can be reached at [email protected]

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