Ventura County educators disagree on the benefits of bilingual education. They clash on the best way to teach children who speak little or no English. And they have failed to reach any consensus on how to implement Proposition 227 since it passed one year ago this month.
But educators do agree that putting the law into practice has made for a tumultuous, confusing and frustrating year. Some districts, including Santa Paula and Fillmore, eliminated bilingual programs and made way for English-based classes, battling with resistant teachers the whole time.
Districts such as Ventura and Oxnard got their bilingual classes back up and running after 30 days of mandated English instruction, and after hundreds of parents signed waivers requesting a return to native language instruction.
And Thousand Oaks and Simi Valley school districts, which already relied on English-based classes, made minimal changes.
Ventura County schools interpreted Proposition 227–the law designed to dismantle bilingual education in California–in myriad ways. And the law, however it was implemented, has had a tremendous impact on students, parents, administrators and teachers.
Students in newly created English-immersion classes speak more English, but are struggling to read and write on grade level, educators say. Parents are more informed about the county’s programs, and are more vocal about how they want their children educated. Many have also taken advantage of tutoring classes created by the landmark initiative.
Teachers are surprised and pleased by how quickly some children are learning English. They are also afraid to speak Spanish for fear of getting sued and are frustrated by the lack of direction from state educators on how to follow the law.
“Every school district and every school classroom is wrestling with this,” said Cliff Rodrigues, the county’s director of bilingual education. “And the effect that we’ve seen from day one is a lot of frustration on the part of teachers, and a lot more frustration on the part of kids.”
Socorro Aguirre, who teaches first-grade English-immersion class at McKevett School in Santa Paula, said she felt like she was completely on her own. “This was not something I wanted to do,” she said. “It was something I was told to do. I had to put my politics aside, and it was tough.”
The law, approved by 61% of California voters last June, requires nearly all instruction to be in English. Children were to receive one-year of English-immersion instruction and then be transferred into mainstream classes.
But in several Ventura County classrooms, bilingual programs are still alive because of a clause that allowed parents the option of returning their children to traditional bilingual classes after 30 days.
Proposition 227 supporters criticize districts for pushing parents to sign waivers, and argue that several districts throughout California are not in compliance with the law.
English for the Children spokesperson Sherri Annis said Stanford 9 results, which will be released June 30, will be the first real evaluation of Proposition 227.
“Those schools that have blatant violations of 227 will have to speak to why the scores are low,” Annis said. “And it will have to go back to why they are not implementing the initiative.”
But state education officials argue that Stanford 9 did not test students’ English abilities and should not be used to judge the success or failure of Proposition 227.
Dual-language posters cover the walls in Matt Walden’s traditional third-grade bilingual class at E.P. Foster School in Ventura. On an average day, Walden said, he speaks 70% in English and 30% in Spanish. He explains instructions and teaches concepts in both languages, and does reading in Spanish with most of his students.
At the beginning of class last Monday, students corrected sentences in their native language. “When do we need to use a capital letter?” Walden asked the students in Spanish.
“At the beginning of a sentence,” 8-year-old Luis Cortez answered in Spanish.
“We need to value bilingualism and not shut out their language and culture,” Walden said. “That makes them feel better, and helps them more in the long-run because they will know two languages.”
Aguirre, known by her first-grade students as Ms. Coco, agrees with Walden. So it was difficult for her to hide 25 years of Spanish-language books and teaching materials in the closet this year as she taught an English-immersion class.
Aguirre said she’s pleased to see how much English her students have learned, and how quickly their reading skills have progressed, but worries whether they understand what they read.
After Alejandra Patino, 6, read a page from “A Tale of Peter Rabbit” on a recent morning, Aguirre asked her why Peter Rabbit was crying.
“It’s cause he lost his jacket,” Alejandra correctly told her teacher.
Each day, Aguirre drills English phonics and language skills with the students, but said she still helps them in Spanish if they get confused. “Yes, they can read, but where is the comprehension, where is the vocabulary, and more importantly, what have we done to their dignity? If they are swimming and sinking, I am not going to let them drown.”
Rosa Patino said her daughter Alejandra has learned more English this year than in kindergarten, and attributes that to the changes in the bilingual program. Occasionally, Alejandra translates for her or helps with her own English-language studies. But Patino worries that Alejandra will lose her ability to speak, read and write Spanish.
“The kids are going to be at a disadvantage in the future because they won’t be able to speak Spanish and they will be competing with people who may be bilingual.”
On a survey at McKevett, 100 parents said they were satisfied with the changes made to the bilingual program, while 19 said they were somewhat satisfied and 17 said they were not satisfied.
At San Cayetano School in Fillmore, Principal Phyllys Lloyd said both parents and teachers were resistant to Proposition 227 and English-immersion classes at first. “They felt like they were abandoning the children,” she said. “But as the year went on, and children did learn and did progress, there was a change in attitude, and that new attitude gained momentum.”
Since the law’s inception, Kris Gutierrez, an associate professor at UCLA’s Graduate School of Education, has been studying its impact in three Southern California school districts. A few of the preliminary findings show the following:
* The meaning of structured immersion classes varies from district to district and school to school.
* Teachers report feeling frustrated, unprepared and devalued by the policy.
* There is very little native-language support, despite teachers’ belief in the value of such support and despite the fact that it is allowed to clarify concepts.
The state superintendent of public instruction also set up a task force to analyze the effect of Proposition 227. Edda Caraballo, a consultant with the state Department of Education and who serves on the task force, said the state needs to provide teachers with specific standards for English language development, so they know what to teach their limited-English speakers.
“People have been floundering around a lot this year,” Caraballo said. “The most negative impact of Proposition 227 is the overall confusion.”
In addition, teachers do not have enough materials and do not receive enough training, Caraballo said.
“If the Legislature really wanted these kids to learn English quickly, they would put some money behind it,” she said. “It’s a really challenging time. And it will get even more complicated and complex to teach English learners with a shortage of trained teachers.”
Ventura County educators have similar concerns, and await the recommendations from the state task force, which will be released in August. Meanwhile, they are already preparing for next year by informing parents about their options and collecting waivers.
“We want to be ready to go when the school year begins,” said Rodrigues of the county schools office. “We don’t want to waste any time.”