Initiative is Open to Interpretation

Prop. 227: Rules Could be Implemented in Different Ways, Educators, Unz Agree

The concept is simple. Replace bilingual education classes with one year of intensive English instruction, then move the kids into regular classrooms.

But if voters approve Proposition 227 on June 2, the reality for most school districts will be far from clear-cut. Vague language in parts of theinitiative means school districts might take a variety of approaches to teaching children English and still meet the requirements of state law.

“How will it affect our programs?” said Joe Rios, bilingual coordinator for the Berryessa Union School District. “I was hoping you could tell us.”

Already, several school districts, including San Francisco and San Jose’s Alum Rock, are saying they won’t comply with the initiative’s mandate to replace most bilingual classes with a year of specialized English instruction. They say the approach is untested and will leave children lost and afraid in classrooms where they can barely grasp what’s going on.

There is no research on the effectiveness of the program proposed under the measure. While many districts use approaches similar to that described in Proposition 227, no school says students must be out of such classes within a year.

The measures’ proponents, meanwhile, say Proposition 227 will force educators to do what they should have been doing all along: teach non-English-speaking students English as quickly as possible.

But only three out of 10 of California’s non-English-speaking students are in bilingual classes now. A shortage of qualified bilingual teachers and conflicting philosophies among the state’s 999 districts mean there is no uniform method for teaching the 1.3 million children who come to school speaking little or no English.

The English for the Children initiative is unlikely to change that. Although the four-page initiative offers guidelines for how students should be taught, the language allows myriad interpretations. Not even the author, Silicon Valley software executive Ron Unz, can predict exactly how his measure would be carried out.

“That is up to the schools,” he said.

One possible incarnation might resemble Nan Fryer’s first-grade classroom in the Orange Unified School District. The Southern California district made headlines last year when it sought a waiver from the state board of education to abandon traditional bilingual education methods.

Now Fryer, a former bilingual teacher who works at California Elementary, teaches mostly in English. She uses a variety of strategies to help her non-English speaking students understand her lessons. A Spanish-speaking aide also works in the classroom to help reinforce the lessons in the students’ native language.

For a lesson on the meaning of the words “on top,” “behind,” and “beside,” Fryer held up pictures of girls and boys standing on top of a step, then behind something and beside an adult. She had her students mimic the pictures by standing on top, behind and beside their chairs. In the meantime, a Spanish-speaking aide worked with another group of children, going over lessons Fryer had taught earlier in the day.

Even though Spanish is used in Fryer’s classroom, this approach would probably comply with the provisions of Proposition 227, its authors say, because most of the instruction is done in English. Santa Clara County’s Berryessa, Cupertino and Evergreen elementary districts employ similar approaches.

In Cupertino, kindergartners are taught in mainstream English classes, but students who are learning English are given one hour a week of special instruction. That approach, too, complies with the initiative.

In the end, how the measure is translated in the classroom will be influenced by a number of agencies that had no role in writing the initiative:

(box) The courts. If a lawsuit is filed, as promised, the courts would determine the validity of the initiative, relying on the measure’s text as well as the summary prepared by the attorney general and analysis completed by the legislative analyst.

(box) Local school districts. If the measure is upheld, many of the decisions on how to carry it out will be made by school districts.

Schools will determine whether parents can obtain waivers to place their children in bilingual programs. To get those classes, at least 20 parents will have to seek waivers and request that their children be taught in their first language at a particular school. Yet even then, students would have to spend at least 30 days in an English-only setting before being allowed to change classrooms.

School officials also will determine when English learners have “acquireda good working knowledge of English” — that is, have become fluent enough to be placed in mainstream English classes. Even though the Unz Initiative says that students should be in sheltered English immersion classes for a period not normally to exceed one year, that language leaves room for districts to keep students in the program for a longer time.

Unz himself acknowledges that is a possibility.

(box) The state education department. Whether schools change their ways dramatically will be likely to depend on how the measure is interpreted by the state Department of Education and how aggressively that agency chooses to enforce it.

The outcome of the race for superintendent of public education could also influence how the measure is interpreted. State schools chief Delaine Eastin has made no secret of her opposition to the Unz Initiative. One of her chief rivals for the job, Gloria Matta Tuchman, is co-author of Proposition 227.

For now, many districts find themselves in a holding pattern. All the polls indicate that voters are prepared to approve Proposition 227 by a large margin. But educators are not rushing to eliminate bilingual instruction.

‘I’m certain this will be tied up in court,” said Santiago Wood, superintendent of the Alum Rock School District. “I don’t intend to bring any plan to the board of education to change our programs.”

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