LOS ANGELES – Eight a.m. in South Central. The fourth day of the 2001-02 school year. Black and Hispanic parents walk new kindergartners past old men collecting bottles in shopping carts, deposit the youngsters at the gates of Lenicia B. Weemes Elementary School and watch from behind bars as the wide-eyed little ones wander around a blacktop courtyard seeking teachers and meal cards.

“They don’t belong here,” principal Annette Kessler says of the parents. “They need to separate from their children.”

And not just emotionally. Kessler wants her immigrant students quickly weaned from their parents’ language, Spanish. Like many other Los Angeles principals, Kessler has welcomed Proposition 227, the original English for the Children initiative, as her liberation from a bilingual education program she despised.

It’s not that Kessler – a native Spanish speaker from the Bronx and one-time bilingual teacher – hates bilingual education. What she hated was the way circumstances forced her to deliver it prior to the 1998 passage of Proposition 227, which bans bilingual education in most cases. A similar but even stricter measure is likely to appear on the Colorado ballot in November.

Kessler’s teachers mainly spoke English, but state and federal law required them to provide Spanish instruction to Spanish-speaking children.

The result: Teachers forfeited the education of immigrant children to Spanish-speaking aides. Laws designed to assure equal access to education had the opposite effect.

“Sometimes English-speaking teachers who let the aides take care of the Spanish-speaking kids almost didn’t have a relationship with these kids,” Kessler says.

“The idealistic bilingual program could not be delivered appropriately,” she says. “I like to look at it this way: If I were a manufacturer and my raw material was silk, why would I try to make cotton blouses? I just can’t do it. And the raw materials in the schools were 35,000 English-speaking teachers and a couple thousand Spanish-speaking teachers.”

To Maria Quezada, executive director of the California Association for Bilingual Education, that makes no more sense than banning math because some math teachers aren’t very good.

“Why are we held to a different standard?” Quezada asks. “You tell me which math program in the state is implemented evenly throughout the state. You can go from classroom to classroom and get different results.”

A visit to Weemes Elementary reveals that if implementing bilingual education was difficult, trying to replace it with something better has been chaotic too.

While Spanish is still widely spoken in the school, Kessler can point to dozens of examples of what English for the Children founder Ron Unz promised voters: kids who can function in regular classes after a single year of “sheltered” English instruction.

Fifth-grader Diana Portillo, for example, made the transition in second grade.

“English was easier to me” after the switch, says Diana, 10. “I just started to read English.”

Several English-speaking teachers agree with Kessler that axing the bilingual program was a great thing for them and their students. Yet it’s still hard to tell whether the school’s results support their optimism about immersion.

The goal of Proposition 227 is to “reclassify” a child from “limited English proficient” (now called simply English learner) to “fluent English proficient.” Unz promised voters that, under his plan, virtually all “limited English proficient” public-school children would learn English in one year of immersion. Yet Weemes reclassified only about 160 of its 750 English learners last year.

Statewide, only 9 percent of California’s more than 1.5 million English learners in public schools were reclassified from 1999-2000 to 2000-01, according to the state Department of Education. English learners outnumber those who have become fluent English speakers by nearly 2-to-1, as they did before Proposition 227 started.

“If (Unz) thought his one-year program was going to be the magic pill for getting these kids to English, that hasn’t happened,” Quezada says.

Unz replies that judging Proposition 227 by reclassification rates is “complete nonsense” because “every school district has its own methodology for reclassification; none of them are the same.”

Kessler’s explanation is that immersion is working, but a staff shortage prevented her from getting through the reclassification paperwork.

The state is introducing a new standardized test to bring some consistency to the reclassification process rather than leaving it entirely to principals’ discretion.

Finding an objective measure of students’ English readiness is important because school officials admit some principals have ignored the wishes of parents who want their kids in bilingual programs.

In California – as in Colorado if the initiative passes here – parents can opt out of the immersion program and ask to have their kids stay in bilingual programs.

Kessler says “not one” Weemes parent requested a waiver.

But Blanca Hernandez says she did, and the school turned her down. As a result, her daughter entered kindergarten being taught in a way Hernandez opposes.

In a show of hands among 18 immigrant parents taking an English as a Second Language class at Weemes, 17 preferred a bilingual approach and only one favored English immersion.

Too many principals fail to explain all the options to parents, says Rita Caldera, director of language acquisition for the Los Angeles Unified School District. Before Proposition 227, 60 percent of the district’s “limited English proficient” students were in bilingual programs. Now it’s 10 percent.

There’s no way the proportion would have dropped that low if parents were being kept informed, Caldera says. “It’s important that parents understand that they have a choice about where to place their children,” she says. So the district is producing a video for them.

Victor Partida, too, is worried about principals who think they can now overrule parents.

Partida, bilingual coordinator at George Washington Preparatory High School in unincorporated Los Angeles County, says the low abilities of incoming students at his school led him to suspect some elementary schools put kids in English classes prematurely. Los Angeles and some other districts give schools $100 of state money for each reclassified student.

“The student isn’t ready, but they pass the student, and when they come to junior high or high school, they are in trouble,” Partida says.

He says his own kids’ elementary school denied him and several other parents who requested bilingual waivers.

“It’s not legal, but that’s what they did,” he says.

The same thing is happening elsewhere in California, Quezada says: “People claim they’re implementing (Proposition 227), but they’re not implementing parts of it.”

So bilingual education is back where it began – in a California courtroom.

Bilingual education was born in the 1970s when the American Civil Liberties Union sued the San Francisco schools on behalf of a Chinese-speaking child.

Now the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund is suing the Los Angeles schools, alleging the district violates parents’ rights.

Asked if she supports the plaintiffs or her own employer, Caldera says, “I support what’s right for kids and what’s right for parents. I believe that parents know their children best and know their situations best and that parents are the ones to make the choice for their children, not an administrator.”

Her boss, Roy Romer, the former Colorado governor who now runs Los Angeles’ public schools, refused to respond to Unz’s assertion that Californians have Proposition 227 to thank for recent gains in standardized-test scores.

“I inherited it, and I’m making it work,” he said in a recent interview.

While Unz and his political enemies go back and forth about whether immersion or bilingual produces better English-speakers, the researcher hired by the California Legislature to answer that says both sides may be asking the wrong question.

Teacher quality is a more important variable, says Tom Parrish, managing research scientist at the American Institutes for Research in Palo Alto, Calif.

“Some of the heavy debate around this needs to be redirected just toward the issue of good teaching,” Parrish says.

“If we call it a bilingual classroom or an English-only classroom, if the teacher is up in the front of the classroom and the children are just sitting there like deaf-mutes, is that really learning?”

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