English for Parents

Literacy programs help immigrants tutor their kids

PITTSBURG—In a sunlit teachers’ lounge at Heights Elementary School in Pittsburg, five Spanish-speaking mothers have workbooks cracked open, their notebooks and pencils ready.

These moms, many of whom did not graduate from high school in their native Mexico, are going back to school, but not for themselves.

In schools and adult education centers across California, mothers — and some fathers — are setting household chores aside, putting children in day care or bringing sleeping babies to class so they can learn how to help their children with homework and study for tests.

Welcome to family literacy in the era of Proposition 227, which ended bilingual education in California’s public schools.

“I want to learn more so I can help my kids,” Pittsburg mother Maria Duenas said in a mixture of Spanish and broken English, while attending a class one recent afternoon. Duenas busily took notes and asked questions as the teacher went over the ABCs, how to write an address and how to give the name of your child’s teacher and room number in English.

Besides doing away with decades of bilingual education — which was seen as holding children back more than helping — Proposition 227, which passed with 61 percent of the vote in November, generated $50 million a year for 10 years for school districts to provide after-school family literacy programs.

With few exceptions, school districts across the state have been required under the law to teach children in English or to provide alternative programs, at parents’ request, in which students are gradually moved to English only.

Three Bay Area districts — Berkeley, Hayward and Oakland — challenged Proposition 227 in court in September, saying they should be granted waivers from the law. An Alameda County Superior Court judge concurred, but the law remains in effect while the ruling is under appeal by the state.

Only San Jose, which is under a federal consent decree to provide bilingual instruction, and a few other districts with dual-language immersion programs have been granted exemptions to Proposition 227, said Rae Belisle, staff counsel for the state Board of Education.

“The bottom line is things have to work,” Belisle said. “If there is a child who would benefit from primary-language instruction, if a district comes to the educational conclusion that there is no other way, then parents have a way to request that.”

In Proposition 227’s family literacy program, the amount of money each district received for adult tutoring was based on a formula using the number of limited English-speaking students per district.

In exchange for the free tutoring, the parents must sign a pledge card stating they will tutor their children in English several hours per week.

Pittsburg Unified is one of dozens of districts in the Bay Area and one of hundreds statewide that have received funding for community-based English instruction from Proposition 227.

Some Bay Area districts, including San Francisco, have implemented programs, while others such as Oakland and Redwood City are now assembling teachers and materials, and recruiting parents.

“It seems to be working well,” said Ron Unz, the Silicon Valley software executive who wrote Proposition 227. “A lot of parents are saying that with the passage of 227, they’re able help their children with homework while learning English themselves, which is the whole intent.”

But Pittsburg’s strict interpretation of Proposition 227 is being challenged by a parents group that claims its children are falling behind because the district lacks an alternative to the bilingual program.

A team from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights will visit Pittsburg this month to review the district’s implementation of the law. The parents group, the Pro Committee for Education — which is made up mostly of Latinos — said the district is violating Proposition 227 by not providing an English immersion program.

“We really think (the parent classes) are a good step in helping improve the education of our children,” said parent Carlos Munoz. “But what we’re asking for is equal access to education for our children. We never said we wanted bilingual education back the way it was. We want the district to provide an alternative.”

District officials said they are in compliance with Proposition 227 and are developing an English immersion program while providing support in students’ native language when necessary.

The after-school English tutoring classes for parents, including those at Heights and Parkside elementary schools in Pittsburg, have day care and transportation to and from class as well as evening and daytime schedules.

“The ultimate goal is to teach English language skills to non-English speaking parents, so they can be part of the education process,” said Pittsburg school board member Sal Belleci. “We want to see all our students do their best. If the parent can acquire the skills to help their children, everybody benefits.”

In San Francisco, the school district received $716,000 for its 18,800 students with limited English proficiency. The district has yet to start its recruiting campaign for the Proposition 227 classes, but news of the training has spread by word-of-mouth and parents are attending classes, said San Francisco Unified’s Rosita Apodaca, assistant superintendent of the Language Academy.

At Heights Elementary in Pittsburg, one boy attending class with his mother is bored with the grammar lesson and ready for a nap. His eyelids droop as he makes airplanes and grabs for his mom’s pencil.

Duenas, who finished grammar school in her native Mexico, said that in order for her children to realize their dream of going to college and one day becoming doctors or police officers, they have to be fluent in English and do well in school.

She and her husband, a painter, help with homework whenever they can, but it is difficult to do with their limited English.

Angelica Martinez, a parent of two children at Heights Elementary, put aside cooking and other household chores to attend the class one recent afternoon.

“Everything waits,” Martinez said, before reciting the date in English. “This is more important.”

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