It's all in the translation

Bilingual education changes not nearly as dramatic as expected

Legally, Jane Maier-Westberg says, she’s not supposed to speak Spanish to her second-graders. But she does.

In a corner of her Flowery School classroom in Boyes Hot Springs, Maier-Westberg gathered her students Thursday morning. Seated on a carpet beneath the U.S. flag, the children listened to a series of clues for whether their teacher was thinking about presidents Washington or Lincoln.

To the clue “I was shot with a gun,” Roberto correctly answered Lincoln. To the clue, “Yo tengo diez perros” (“I have 10 dogs”), Rosa, a new child from Mexico, answered “Washington.”

“Good job, Rosa,” praised the teacher.

Maier-Westberg is among the thousands of California teachers charged with implementing Proposition 227, the new law limiting bilingual education. The law requires schools to teach “overwhelmingly” in English unless parents sign waivers for those children who have limited skill speaking English.

While many Flowery parents have signed waivers for bilingual classes, Maier-Westberg’s parents opted to stick with English instruction for their Spanish-speaking children. Under district guidelines, her students still receive 90 minutes of reading instruction in Spanish. The rest of the day is supposed to be in English.

Still, on occasion the teacher speaks Spanish so her new students understand and feel a part of the class.

“I will sometimes translate because they’re just lost,” she said.

Voters overwhelmingly approved Proposition 227 last June. As a result, administrators generally agree that Sonoma County students are receiving less instruction in Spanish this year. Moreover, the law has increased the power of parents to determine whether a district will offer bilingual education.

After one semester, most say it remains too early to predict whether the law will produce the desired effect of its proponents — to virtually eliminate bilingual education in California.

Districts such as Sonoma and Windsor continue to have many parents enroll their children in various forms of bilingual education. Others, including Cotati-Rohnert Park and Petaluma, didn’t get a single request for such instruction. Even the Bellevue School District, which last year had the fourth largest number of English learners in the county, didn’t receive enough waivers to open one bilingual class.

So far, educators say, the law hasn’t lived up to the predictions made during last year’s election campaign — either the dire forecasts of bilingual teachers or the rosy scenarios of the proponents.

Nonetheless, the initiative’s chief backer, Silicon Valley millionaire Ron Unz, expressed satisfaction last week with the pace of change. He cited news stories where bilingual teachers have spoken positively about their students’ progress learning English.

“I would expect the number of bilingual programs would be a lot less next year than this year,” Unz said in a telephone interview. “We seem to be heading in that direction.”

Sonoma County Superintendent of Schools Tom Crawford has read one of those stories — an article about bilingual teachers in Los Angeles. It made him scratch his head.

“Am I living someplace else?” Crawford asked. “That’s not what I’m hearing here.”

He and other administrators say the county’s bilingual teachers don’t seem ready to change their long-held beliefs that the best method for English learners is to teach them to read first in their native language, then help them make the transition to English.

Nearly a quarter of California’s 5.6 million school children are English learners — including nearly 9,000 students in Sonoma County. The vast majority of those students speak Spanish, though the county’s students speak more than 30 other different languages.

Before Proposition 227, the state’s policy was for schools to teach Spanish-speaking students in Spanish in order to keep up their academic skills, but also to teach them English. However, many schools lacked enough trained bilingual teachers to instruct students in Spanish. Less than a third of the state’s students were ever in native language programs, according to state records.

After the law passed, each school board around the state had to decide what Proposition 227 meant.

Each district had to set up its own program for carrying out the law. Generally, that meant placing all English learners in English-only classes for 30 days, then seeing how many parents requested waivers for Spanish instruction. If 20 or more children have waivers in the same grade, the school must provide those students instruction in Spanish.

Unz likes to remind listeners that Proposition 227 sought to limit waivers to older students or those with “special needs.” School administrators around the state generally ignored him on this point. They essentially decided that any child who doesn’t speak English has a special need — thus giving parents much more power over the decision.

Administrators agree Proposition 227 has changed teaching in the classroom. In the Roseland District in Santa Rosa, the law resulted in more Spanish and English students being grouped together and interacting more on the playground, said Superintendent Les Crawford. And the district is working harder to provide the same amount of assistance to students speaking other languages than Spanish, including Lao, Cambodian and Tgrinian, the language of Eritrea.

But, he said, cutting out bilingual education “has prevented us from providing the support that I think we could for our Spanish-speaking children.”

Les Crawford anticipated one of his district’s bilingual programs will be phased out in the coming years. In that program, known as dual immersion, Spanish- and English-speaking children learn to become fluent in both languages. Regardless of the law, he said, the program has been hampered by the large numbers of Spanish-speaking students who move out of the district each year, as well as the small pool of English-speaking students who enrolled.

Other dual immersion programs continue to thrive, administrators said, and are generally regarded as the most successful form available of bilingual education. Windsor’s Cali Calmecac Immersion School, the oldest in the county, became a charter school last year to remain free of the requirements of Proposition 227. And Flowery School began its own dual immersion program in September.

Flowery may be the best example of the expanded options available to parents at some schools. Young Spanish-speaking students there can learn reading in English; reading in Spanish with their other subjects, even writing, in English; or mostly all instruction in Spanish except for the lessons to learn English.

Even in Maier-Westberg’s class, where she speaks overwhelmingly in English, virtually all the children used Spanish to talk with one another about their math assignment.

Administrators speak with a touch of pride at how hard their staffs had to work last August and September to get ready, as well as how the teachers have worked to teach their students within the boundaries of Proposition 227.

That includes Flowery Principal Michael Babb. He said some people may consider Maier-Westberg bending the law when she speaks in Spanish. But she is the expert in the classroom and the person responsible for helping all her children succeed in school.

“You’re dealing with people’s children, not widgets,” Babb said.

As in Sonoma Valley, other administrators around the county also have decided to allow Spanish instruction to students without waivers — up to 60 to 90 minutes. Still others set no numerical limit but say they seek to keep the use of Spanish to a minimum.

Unz said teachers can still use Spanish in the classroom for students without waivers. But he considers 60 minutes of instruction in Spanish “really stretching the limit.”

“It sounds like something halfway between bilingual and English immersion,” he said.

Still, he expresses confidence that parent pressure and other factors will force school districts to drop such measures when the state’s standardized testing program shows what poor results they produce. Similarly, he thinks the test results will cause parents to abandon most bilingual programs.

Under the law, there’s the threat that teachers and administrators can be held personally liable for willfully disregarding Proposition 227’s provisions. To date, no such suits are known to have been filed.

Administrators suggest Unz could be proved wrong. Guillermo Rivas, director of bilingual services for the Sonoma County Office of Education, said initial reviews of last year’s SAT 9 test results indicates the English learners from bilingual programs scored higher than their peers from other programs.

Most contend it will take some time to evaluate the various programs. Good data will be crucial.

“I want to know drop-out rates,” said Sonoma Valley district board member Catherine Stone. “I want to know test scores.”

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