Immersed in English

Four years after the landmark measure passed, enrollment in traditional bilingual classes has fallen by half. But while early scores suggest the adjusted curriculum is a success, officials say it's still too soon to tell

Oceano—On top of the usual challenges of first grade — sharing, sounding out words, adding and subtracting, sitting still for long stretches — more than half the students in Linda Wineberg’s class at Oceano Elementary School face another hurdle:

Learning English.

To help them, Wineberg doesn’t rely on words alone.

She scours her home for everyday items to use as visual aids — things like Beanie Babies and small toys that students can hold in their little hands.

She groups students together, so that fluent English speakers can help English learners.

And like an actor in a silent movie, she exaggerates her body language and facial expressions. “You have to be more animated,” said Wineberg, who once came to class as a tree, wrapping herself in butcher paper for a trunklike effect.

Five years ago — before the passage of Proposition 227 restricted bilingual education — students in classes like Wineberg’s spent a good chunk of the school day learning in Spanish, particularly in the primary grades.

Today, Wineberg uses Spanish on a limited basis, as a “bridge” to help students understand.

She is not alone.

Countywide, the percentage of English learners enrolled in bilingual programs declined from 50 percent in 1995 to 25 percent in 2001, according to statistics from the state Department of Education.

As of last spring, around 2,300 of the county’s 3,000 English learners were enrolled in programs taught primarily in English, by teachers specially trained to instruct language learners. The programs go by various names, including English immersion and “sheltered” English.

Are they working?

“It’s coming along,” said Wineberg, whose class of 20 includes 13 students classified as English- language learners. “They’re really able little learners.”

Ron Unz — the Silicon Valley businessman who wrote Proposition 227 and led the campaign for its 1998 passage — says students have made great strides.

“I’m extremely pleased with the test score results, which seem to show limited-English speakers who are not in bilingual (classes) are scoring up to three times better on standardized tests,” he said.

Scores are improving

According to 2001 test scores, language learners enrolled in programs that emphasize English are outperforming their peers in bilingual programs, both across the state and in San Luis Obispo County.

For example, more than 51 percent of county second- graders enrolled in sheltered English immersion programs scored average or above on the reading portion of the standardized exam — which is given in English — compared with 9 percent of English learners in bilingual programs.

In the fourth grade, 17 percent of students in English immersion did average or better on reading, compared with 9 percent in bilingual programs.

Education officials caution, however, that it’s premature to reach conclusions based on a single set of test scores. It will take long-term studies to judge the success of programs.

“People are going to try to misuse this data,” predicted Lauri Burnham, who works on English learner issues for the state Department of Education, “and draw conclusions you simply cannot draw from the data.”

To be sure, the debate over the best way to teach English learners is far from over, even in this post-Proposition 227 era.

“This is a debate that’s been going on since Ellis Island,” said John Morse, assistant superintendent of instruction for the Paso Robles Joint Unified School District.

Districts that have completely phased out bilingual education say they are seeing progress on standardized tests and report cards.

“Before Proposition 227, you didn’t see growth,” said Maggie White, spokeswoman for the big Santa Maria-Bonita School District, where half of the 12,000 students are English learners. “Now, we’re seeing growth every year.”

However, some educators say that academic research points out that, over the long haul, students do best in long-term bilingual programs.

“They have been shown to work,” said Alice Tomasini, an assistant professor of education at Cal Poly, “but most of California’s programs are what we’ve called transitional, which is ‘Get them out as soon as possible.'”

While students may learn English more quickly in an immersion program — and do better on standardized, English-language tests as a result — educators who support bilingual classes worry that students may not get the academic grounding they will need later, especially when it comes time to take the high school exit exam.

“You can cram for any test and do better on it than if you don’t cram for it,” said Fran Long, director of special projects for the Paso Robles Joint Unified School District. “But you’re not doing better for yourself down the road. We don’t want to do that to our students.”

In other words, will students who make a quick transition to English gain the higher-level language skills they will need later on to make sense of complicated lectures on subjects like DNA or the Great Depression?

Bilingual or immersion

While that question remains to be answered, Long sees some value in program assessments that followed passage of Proposition 227.

“It made districts take a hard look at how much English we were putting in our days,” she said. “We added more English.”

For students who speak little or no English, however, Paso Robles officials still recommend basic, academic instruction in their native language.

And that’s permitted under the law.

Proposition 227, which required schools to teach “overwhelmingly” in English, did not outlaw Spanish in the classroom. Parents can apply for waivers requesting a bilingual program, and by law, districts must provide one if 20 or more students at the same grade level are granted waivers.

In the Paso Robles district — which has the county’s second-largest population of English learners, after Lucia Mar — more than 75 percent of parents of primary-grade English learners have chosen a program that provides some amount of instruction in Spanish.

The district offers two programs — bilingual and dual immersion. Instruction in Spanish occurs in each.

Gloria Ontiveros, a Paso Robles mother of two, has both her children in the dual immersion program at Georgia Brown Elementary, which is designed for English-only students as well as Spanish speakers. Some lessons are in English, and others in Spanish. The goal is to have all children fluent in both languages by the time they graduate.

Ontiveros thought an all-English program would be too drastic a change for her children. Plus, she wanted them to maintain their Spanish.

“You go to Mexico, and your kids don’t understand Spanish,” she said in Spanish, referring to children who haven’t had the chance to keep up their native language.

In Santa Maria, though, there are no bilingual classes at all, and according to White, parents rarely request the waivers. Since Proposition 227 passed, she said, only 10 parents have filled out forms asking for bilingual instruction.

“Parents want their students learning English,” said White.

Now that all students are required to take standardized tests in English — even if they’ve been in the country only a matter of weeks — some see that as another incentive to get students into English as quickly as possible.

Tracking their progress

Perhaps never before have the stakes been so high on a standardized test. Schools, and even individual teachers, can earn money if their students make substantial gains on the exams.

The tests also have an impact on the kids who take them.

Kathleen Pritchard, the principal of Oceano Elementary School, has seen children in tears because they couldn’t understand the test.

“When you see a second-grade child cry because they don’t know enough English, that’s hard,” she said. “You lovingly say, ‘I know you’re learning English, but this is a requirement. You look at it, do the best you can, but if you can’t do more, put it away.'”

Oceano Elementary, which serves a largely Latino population, still offers some bilingual classes, but not nearly as many as before Proposition 227.

Then, there were typically 10 or 11 bilingual classes — at least one at each grade level. Now, Pritchard said, there is one bilingual kindergarten. First and second-graders can learn to read in Spanish — with their parents’ permission – – but the rest of their studies are primarily in English.

In Wineberg’s class, all but two students are reading in English.

Her Spanish-speaking, English readers get special textbooks that include pronunciation guides to help them distinguish between the long “a” of “cake” and the short “a” of “hat.”

As expected, it’s slow going for these students. By the end of the year, they typically have not progressed as far as children who learn to read in their native language.

“Not only are you teaching them to read,” said Pritchard, “you’re teaching them a whole new language, too.”

What’s best for kids in the long run is something Oceano Elementary — along with the rest of California — will be tracking.

“I think it’s going to take a couple of more years before you can make some definitive claims one way or the other,” said Pritchard. “When those kids who started in kindergarten get all the way through sixth grade, I think you can tell.”

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