In waiver schools, it's just English

EDUCATION: Districts in Orange County lead the state in requesting such exceptions from state bilingual provisions.

IRVINE, CA—Chattering is kept to a minimum in Joanne Srsic’s first- and second-grade class. That’s because many students can’t communicate with one another.

Twenty kids. Nine languages.

Japanese. Mandarin. Cantonese. Korean. Thai. French. Spanish.

Vietnamese. Hebrew.

And a tenth: fledgling English.

“For the first two months of school, I go home very tired,” Srsic said.

With so many languages, there’s no such thing as traditional “bilingual education. ” Students at Culverdale Elementary aren’t taught in their native language. It’s English-only, by default.

“Our main purpose is to get them to oral proficiency by the end of the year,” she said. “So they can survive. “

Two years ago and with much fanfare, the State Department of Education announced it would give districts a waiver with more leeway in designing their own programs.

Westminster and Magnolia were the first to apply for permission to teach in English, bypassing state rules that suggest some students be taught in their native language. Savanna followed.

Trustees in Orange and Anaheim say they want a waiver, too.

Districts in Orange County lead the state in requesting such waivers. But what seems a groundswell towards English instruction masks the fact that very little has changed.

English has always been king.

In Orange County, only about one of every three non-English speakers are taught in their own language.

The rest are taught in English.

The reasons vary. For some districts such as Westminster and Magnolia and others operating under different waivers, it’s a matter of policy.

For others it’s a matter of real life.

California is short about 20,000 bilingual teachers. And those the state does have overwhelmingly are for Spanish. At last count, there were little more than 50 Vietnamese-speaking bilingual-education teachers.

Where do districts find qualified teachers in Urdu, Gujarati, Marshallese? Sometimes, the number of kids speaking a particular language is just too small to warrant a special teacher in their language.

And so most end up in a class like Srsic’s where, by this time of year, a core group ofstudents have learned enough English to take spelling tests.

“How’d you do? ” asked Srsic’s after sounding out words like “if” and “winter. “

“Maybe! ” burst out Elina Arai, who’d probably be more comfortable in Japanese.

Srsic’s class is a special class, where English instruction is slower.

“For the first few months, you’re an actor,” she said.

Friday, Srsic talked about mammals with a group of more advanced students. Assistant Jeanette Schaefer held up picture flashcards for a group newer to the country.

Students won’t have full English fluency for about four years, Srsic said. But in the meantime, they pick up enough English from the patient sounding-outs of their teachers, their peers and bilingual parents, whom they soon eclipse.

“I speak English very well now,” said Marine Schmidt in French.

Then she switched to English:

“Better than my parents. “

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