The principal of Aldama Elementary School in Northeast Los Angeles is a crisply dressed Latina who learned English in a grade school where it was the only language teachers spoke.
Now, Martha Trevino Powell has no patience with people who say children need nurturing in their native tongue.
“Everybody says, ‘I was damaged, my self-esteem was ruined because they forced me to speak English,’ ” she said.
But Powell has no regrets. “I speak English and Spanish. I’m grateful.”
At Florence Avenue School in South-Central, bilingual coordinator Christine Ferreira is a native English speaker who learned Spanish living abroad and has enrolled her son in a program where his lessons are in Spanish so he will be bilingual too.
But she wouldn’t push English immersion on the predominantly Spanish-speaking children at Florence. “I’m there to support [my son] with the Spanish,” she said. “Many of our Spanish-speaking parents here can’t do that with their kids. Very few speak English.” Both educators have the same goal: teaching English as quickly as possible to the children in their charge. But one will vote for Proposition 227, the June ballot measure that would virtually eliminate native language instruction for the state’s 1.4 million schoolchildren who speak little or no English. The other will vote against it. The wide gulf between them is hardly uncommon among educators. On the volatile subject of bilingual education, teachers and school administrators are just as divided as the population and possibly even more passionate.
In a referendum conducted by the Los Angeles teachers union, teachers narrowly supported bilingual education, voting 52% to 48% against the initiative sponsored by Silicon Valley businessman Ron Unz.
Though all share the goal of teaching children to read and write, teachers also draw their opinions from deeply personal experience. Some, like Powell and Ferreira, are influenced by their own upbringing. Others see inequities in pay and employee rights. And many have formed conclusions by witnessing success or failure in the classroom. At Dearborn Elementary School in Northridge, English is the rule and teachers voted 19-2 in the referendum in favor of the Unz initiative.
Most Dearborn teachers believe that the earlier children immerse themselves in English, the sooner they learn it–and the faster they make the transition into mainstream instruction.
“The primary [foreign] language is a crutch,” said fifth-grade teacher Carol Promen. In English-only classes, she said, “they learn English because they have to. The younger they are, the more they absorb.”
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At Dearborn, where only 18% of the students are considered to have limited English ability, newcomers are surrounded by English in classrooms and on the playground. Native English speakers serve as role models, teachers say.
Things couldn’t be more different only a few miles away at San Fernando Elementary, where three-fourths of the students are Spanish-speaking and 28 of 47 teachers hold bilingual credentials.
They voted 39-6 against the Unz initiative in the United Teachers-Los Angeles referendum, and they say their classroom experiences bear out the perils of English immersion and the merits of bilingual education.
Carol Lyman, who teaches fourth and fifth grades, said she can easily spot the students coming from the bilingual program and those who were removed and placed in English-only classes at their parents’ request.
“The kids who were pulled [from bilingual education] are behind,” she said. “They have a hard time making sense grammatically. Their spelling is bad. I don’t think they got a grasp of their native language. They were thrown into something they weren’t ready for.”
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English becomes a barrier rather than a facilitator to learning, such teachers say. “Learning is not only learning the English language,” said kindergarten teacher Rosalinda Cardenas, president of the San Fernando Valley chapter of the California Assn. of Bilingual Education. “It’s about making connections, creating meaning. Are we producing students who will do lower-level thinking? Or are we giving them the opportunity to build higher-order skills at an early age, which leads to more confident, more productive learners and citizens?”
In these Northridge and San Fernando examples, the views of educators reflect the communities they serve. But attitudes on bilingual education do not always fit so neatly into a milieu.
Florence and Graham, which is another elementary school less than two miles away and also in a predominantly Latino portion of South-Central Los Angeles, have developed dramatically different cultures.
More than two-thirds of Florence’s 60 teachers speak Spanish, a consequence of Principal Javier Miranda’s aggressive recruiting. Florence teachers voted 29-4 against the Unz initiative.
Only a fourth of Graham’s teaching staff is credentialed to teach bilingual education, a ratio that reflects the district’s shortage of bilingual teachers. The school’s faculty voted 34-12 for Proposition 227, and many teachers criticize the way bilingual education works in their school.
Many Graham bilingual classes are taught by teachers who don’t speak Spanish. They develop the lesson plans, which are then taught by Spanish-speaking aides. “When I was in that situation, I started to panic,” said teacher Phoung Amiel. “I thought I was the teacher.”
Amiel, a Vietnamese immigrant, learned English by immersion when she was 10. “I firmly believe that if you want your kids to learn Spanish, that is the responsibility of the home,” she said. “That should not be the main focus [in school], because we’re in America.”
Some of her colleagues are more conflicted. “I would like to see us have the resources we need,” said teacher Kim Nishimoto, who added that she would support bilingual education if it were properly staffed. “As it is, all it does is foster illiteracy in the inner city. It makes the kids look stupid, which they’re not, and it makes us look stupid, which we’re not.” The perks that bilingual teachers receive, including a $5,000 annual stipend and the right to bump teachers who don’t speak Spanish, rankle some of their colleagues. The most cynical said that those who oppose the Unz initiative are merely thinking of their wallets.
Nishimoto said the district should pay experienced teachers to learn Spanish in university level courses, rather than give preference to inexperienced applicants who speak Spanish.
Debby Eckstein, a strong advocate of Proposition 227, sees some use for Spanish in class. “Spanish in language arts and everything else in English,” she said. But Eckstein fears that she could lose her summer vacation track to a less senior teacher because she is not a bilingual teacher. Eckstein believes that all bilingual teachers should be credentialed, both for the children’s sake and her own.
At Florence, teachers and administrators are united in their commitment to bilingual education, and they see positive results.
One recent day, second-grade teacher Claudia Saldana, in her second year, was reviewing the elements of a story: personajes, escenario, problemas, accion, resolucion.
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Veteran teacher Rosamaria Rodriguez, who will teach the children next year in her third-grade class, is confident they will be ready for the intricacies of long and short vowels and English prefixes and suffixes once they pass a test of Spanish proficiency. “When they come to me from second grade, I can prepare them to pass the test,” Rodriguez said. “Their primary language literacy is so strong we can begin to transition.” Ferreira credits the school’s supportive atmosphere for the fact that, among upper-grade Spanish speakers, students from the bilingual classes have scored nearly twice as high on standardized English reading tests as students from the English-only classes. “We don’t have that ‘It was good enough for Mom, it should be good enough for them’ attitude,” she said.
Yet feelings about bilingual education run so deep that even a school where staff work in collegial harmony can erupt in fervid argument.
It happened recently at Aldama, whose teachers voted 13-13 on the union referendum, despite Principal Powell’s certainty that she had assembled a staff of strong English-immersion believers.
When the debate broke out, fifth-grade teacher Fred Brannan was practically the only one to take her side, citing everything from inequitable teacher pay to the rapid assimilation of 35 million European immigrants to the United States earlier in this century.
“You’re drawing a parallel with a sociology that doesn’t exist today,” fourth-grade teacher Jose Velazquez replied.
“We’re in a crisis,” Brannan responded. “If our kids can’t read and can’t write, why pound a cultural lesson into them.” For Powell, to watch the debate tilt against her own view was a surprise, but also an affirmation.
“I don’t hire any ‘Yes, ma’am’ teachers,” she said proudly.