How anti-bilingual law translates in the class

LOS ANGELES — Anahi Martinez stared intently at the worksheet. “Queen,” the 6-year-old said softly, pointing to a picture of a woman wearing a crown. Then, retreating into the comfort of Spanish, she said “peine,” and picked out a drawing of a comb.

For a moment after her first-grade teacher, Andres Vazquez, told her in English to circle the objects whose names started with Q, Anahi looked confused. When he gently repeated the instructions in Spanish, however, she tilted her round face toward the paper and began to move her pencil around the queen.

Spanish is the first language of Anahi and all her classmates. A year ago, they would have been learning to read and write in that language, too, while gradually being introduced to English along the way.

But last spring California voters passed a sweeping initiative that all but banned bilingual education. Instead, Proposition 227 required students to spend no more than a year in sheltered English-immersion programs, before moving into mainstream classes.

The vote came after nearly three decades of bilingual education that had failed miserably. Tens of thousands of children languished for years in segregated classes where they learned little English and never caught up with their English-speaking peers. Tens of thousands more floundered with little assistance in regular classes, since there were nowhere near enough qualified bilingual educators to teach them.

To Ron Unz, the Silicon Valley entrepreneur who wrote the “English for the Children” initiative, dismantling the system was the only way to change it, and 61 percent of those voting agreed. But California’s bilingual-education establishment — a large, well-entrenched force in a state with 1.4 million limited-English students, half the nation’s total — regarded Unz’s approach as far too extreme.

So school systems did what many California institutions facing initiative-driven change have done: They promised to follow the new law, then quietly modified it to make it work on their terms.

In the Los Angeles Unified School District, which includes the Forty-Ninth Street School, it is being broadly interpreted. The district offers limited-English students two choices: Model A, in which their teacher speaks only in English but they can seek help from an aide fluent in their first language; and Model B, in which there is only one teacher, primarily speaking English but employing the students’ first language when needed (the goal is no more than 30 percent).

To Model B teachers such as Vazquez, the amount of Spanish spoken is a matter of common sense, not rules. Only two of his pupils have parents with strong English skills. So Vazquez uses English most of the time but makes sure he loses no one along the way.

“I want them to understand. So when I see that they’re not understanding, I speak Spanish to them,” Vazquez said. “They understand. They comprehend. They’re not speaking at a fluent level yet, but they’re learning.”

In a portable classroom, a Model A first-grade class worked on writing. Here, teacher Sarah Harlow does not speak Spanish, but her aide, Rosaura Pedroza, does. So while Harlow gave instructions only in English, children who did not understand wandered over to Pedroza, who explained what they were not catching. Harlow said she thought the system worked well.

“I can see where it’s helping a lot of kids,” she said. “I have lots of Spanish-speaking children whose English is better than a lot of my English-speaking students.”


Older students


Proposition 227 was aimed mainly at young children; the situation is more complex for older students, who must grapple with daunting subject matter as they learn basic English skills. Still, most know they have to learn English quickly if they want a future.

Kaendy Garcia, 17, arrived in Los Angeles a year ago from Guatemala with no English. Now a 10th grader at Belmont High School, she has two periods a day in English as a Second Language. Her math, science and history, however, are regular high school courses, in which she simply does the best she can.

“In this country, if you want to learn more things, you have to know English,” Garcia said. “I think if you’re a child it’s not so bad to learn. But for me it’s harder. It’s very hard. But I want to learn soon.”

[ In Philadelphia, 10,000 students in 98 schools get services ranging from full-fledged bilingual education to occasional help from a classroom aide who speaks the child’s native language. In between are English as a Second Language programs, in which students spend several hours a day working on English acquisition while taking their other subjects in English.

[ Here, too, there is lively debate over the best way to teach these children, and some parents are concerned that their children aren’t learning English fast enough. But there hasn’t been pressure to abandon bilingual education; in fact, it is growing. Superintendent David Hornbeck wants students with limited English held to the same standards as everyone else, but he also has approved a Spanish-language citywide test to measure proficiency in math, reading and science. ]


Opting out


Compared with some school districts, Los Angeles is strictly interpreting the new law. Other districts have vowed to defy it altogether.

Individual students too have opted out of English immersion under a clause giving parents the right to exempt them through signed waivers. Supposedly, such students must be older than 10, or prove they already know English, or demonstrate “special physical, emotional, psychological or educational needs.” In fact, many school districts, including Los Angeles Unified School District, have handed out waivers freely to anyone requesting one — about 11 percent of parents in Los Angeles.

That was not the law’s intent, said Unz, its author; nevertheless, he said in an interview last week, the mass waivers many educators expected never materialized.

“On paper, according to state figures, the number of students in bilingual education is down about 90 percent from last year. There seems to be a lot of cheating around the edges, but just a few months after an election, with a system that was so entrenched, that’s pretty amazing, isn’t it? . . . My suspicion is that we’ll see the remaining compliance in a year or two.”

Much hinges on the first post-Proposition 227 standardized tests, which students begin taking — in English — this spring. The results will be the first measurable evidence of how much students in English-only classes are comprehending. In Los Angeles the tests have an added dimension, because the district has decided to end “social promotion” — allowing children to move up to the next grade even though they are struggling academically — in 2000. There is concern that large numbers of limited-English students will be held back and may give up on school altogether.

Still, many teachers, including some who had forecast disaster, express surprise at how smoothly a radical transformation has taken place.

At the Alexandria Street School near downtown Los Angeles, second-grade teacher Maria Elena Crabb, who teaches on the year-round schedule common in much of the city, had just three days’ notice to prepare for English immersion in August.

“We didn’t have the books we needed. None of what I had prepared worked anymore,” Crabb said. “So I ended up improvising, bringing books from my own kids at home.” Since then, she has seen her students make visible progress.

“I knew that the bilingual program had many problems. The program was only as good as the person teaching it,” she said. “In the long run, I think this will be a good thing.”

Most of her students are the children of recent Central American immigrants, many of them poor and illiterate — which is the source of one of her remaining fears: that the parents — many of whom do not speak English themselves — will be less and less able to assist their children. “In the bilingual system, they [ the children ] learned English more slowly, but they ended up biliterate. The parents at least could help their children with some of the Spanish. The number-one complaint I hear from parents now is: ‘I can’t read the workbook.’ It’s sad.”

Crabb teaches only a few children who have second-grade reading and writing skills; her lowest group will be lucky to approach first-grade level by the end of the year. If, as the law requires, they are moved into a mainstream third-grade class next year, it is hard to imagine them catching up, she said.

Still, she does her best to help them, patiently repeating English words as she holds up flashcards, reading story after story aloud. When the children speak to her in Spanish, she almost always answers in English.

On a recent morning, she worked with one group on a phonics exercise, identifying a series of words that began with the letter G.

One picture showed a gull. No child knew what it was.

“Gaviotas, they’re called gaviota in Spanish. In English, they’re called seagull,” she explained.

Then the children were stumped again, by a picture of a certain kind of smile.

“OK, let me show you. I know you don’t know this word, so let me show. I can smile,” she said, doing so, lips together.

“But if I show my teeth, that is called a grin,” she said, grinning.

The children imitated her, one by one repeating the new word and grinning, too.

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