Despite many successes in English-only classes for non-native English-speaking students in the first school year after Proposition 227, LAUSD officials plan to continue offering classes in which teachers can use as much Spanish as they want.
Many principals, teachers and parents said English-only classes offered under the “Model A” program have worked well.
But the district is embarking on the second year at an estimated cost of $30 million for stipends to teachers in “Model B” classes using Spanish as a safety net without evidence that the system has resulted in better student performance.
Proposition 227 was approved by voters last year in an effort to mandate English-only instruction in California schools. But Los Angeles Unified School District officials believe an apparent legal loophole in the wording — that English immersion instruction is “not normally” to exceed one year — allows them the option of extending classes that include Spanish assistance for tens of thousands of students next fall. “We’re trying to provide a bridge to a successful experience for students,” said Forrest Ross, director of the LAUSD’s language acquisition branch and former Canoga Park Elementary School principal.
“We don’t intend to promote illegal activities. We’re committed to the letter of the law, and we’re in support of proficiency in English for our students.”
At the end of April, the LAUSD had 117,024 non-native English-speaking students in its Model B program that allows Spanish explanations as teachers see fit — 35,312 more than it had in English-only classes for non-native English speakers.
The district moved about 25,000 students this year into mainstream English classes, about the same rate as in prior years, Ross said. About 70,000 students have passed English proficiency tests and are awaiting assignment to English-only classes.
Spanish was to end
Ron Unz, the Palo Alto software entrepreneur who authored Prop. 227, said that while some flexibility was written into the measure, it was not intended to allow widespread and continued instruction in Spanish. “If a lot of children aren’t learning English after one year, then it seems LAUSD may not be running a good program,” Unz said. “It shouldn’t take much more than a year for most students, if that.”
District board member David Tokofsky said the extension of the Spanish-explanation classes represents a “failure in instructional leadership to focus on the fundamental needs of the students, which is even more glaring in this uncharted territory.”
The tier system’s defenders say many Latino students coming out of Spanish-speaking communities need another year of structured English to understand complex concepts.
“If you were to travel to a foreign county and were expected to learn a language in one year, that would be very, very difficult for many children,” said Fullbright Avenue Elementary School Principal Margaret Espinosa Nelson.
All of the tiers are supposed to move students into English and other subjects in English as quickly as possible. The LAUSD has not yet determined whether that’s happening.
In practice, students in some Spanish classes are more likely to be taught by emergency-credentialed instructors and to have less exposure to English instructional materials, according to interviews with district officials, principals, teachers, parents and students.
At Canoga Park Elementary School, for example, all eight emergency-credentialed instructors teach the classes in which Spanish is allowed.
District officials acknowledge Model B textbooks are lacking. They say materials appropriate to the tier have not been developed, adding oral instruction is emphasized anyway.
“While reading and writing is required at every level, they may not have a reading text,” Ross said.
When limited English-speaking kids do get hold of English books, however, they start reading them along with their peers, said Sheryl Rosario, a first-grade teacher at Canoga Park Elementary. “You can’t hold them back.”
Tens of thousands of parents of Model B students last month received letters advising them that in the “professional” opinion of school administrators, their children would “benefit” from another year in the classes with Spanish help. The letters include the caveat that the final decision, legally, is up to parents. But there is a wide discrepancy in how principals present that decision to parents.
Nelson said she tells Fullbright Avenue parents that research shows children who get support in their primary language build stronger academic foundations.
“It’s important to invite students to embrace school,” she said. “If we can do that with a smile and a language they understand, it’s the best way.”
Laura Ortega said the programs have benefited her two sons — Ricky, 10, a fourth-grader in the Model A English-only classes, and Eric, 6, a first-grader in Model B, both at Fullbright.
Ortega of Canoga Park said Nelson initially asked her whether she spoke Spanish, which she does. “Then she told me that if I wanted to help my son that I should put him in a program where I could help him.”
Initially, Ortega said she wanted Eric in a Model A English-only class as well but was discouraged. “Many people have told me that the English-only program is better. But the school told me the classes were filled, that there wasn’t any space.”
Of the 29 classes offered at Fullbright next fall, four are English-only for students whose first language is English, with the remainder divided among models A and B.
Nelson denied children are ever placed without their parents’ full consent.
Some parents said they felt pressure to choose a more bilingual setting for their children.
Ramiro Ortiz of Winnetka said that after fighting to move his daughter out of a traditional bilingual class at Fullbright a couple of years ago, he decided to lie on the home language survey and to say he spoke English at home to make sure his son was not put into a Model B class.
`I put English, English, English,” he said, a request that was honored. “But they made me lie, and I did lie. I’m not hurting anybody, and I’m helping my kid.
“My kids were born here, and I want their education to be in English. It’s my job at home to keep their culture for them.”
Canoga Park Elementary School Principal Lorraine Mariglia said that of the 900 students with limited English proficiency this year, 58 have passed tests and are eligible for placement in English-only classes — about the same percentage as other schools with a large structured English immersion program.
“The law says they’ll learn English in a year, but I liken it to learning Russian,” Mariglia said. “They can say learn it in a year, but that doesn’t mean I would.”
Little demand for Spanish help
At several other Valley elementary schools, principals said they had students with limited English but no demand from parents for the Model B classes offering Spanish help.
At Serrania Avenue Elementary School in Woodland Hills, where about 82 of the 720 students are not proficient in English, Principal Annette Star said only Model A English-only classes will be offered next fall.
The school never offered the Model B classes.
“We explain both of the programs to the parents, and most of them say, We want English,” Star said. “We want the one with the most English.”
Teacher morale problems
Teachers who teach Model B — English instruction with Spanish explanations — next year can expect to receive either the $5,000 stipend collectively bargained for bilingual instructors or the $2,500 for instructors who pass a district language test, Tokofsky said.
Meanwhile, most Model A English-only teachers will get only about $1,500 a year for their credential under a rewards program that is being phased down, he added.
“We could be using that $30 million to give a 1 percent pay raise to all the teachers,” Tokofsky said. “But there’s a faction of people who would scream murder.”
One instructor said she’s concerned that the $5,000 stipend is “tied to the kids, tied to their achievement and tied to passing them along.”
The district will monitor for patterns that children are being held back inappropriately, Ross said. District officials stand behind their decision to continue the program, saying the demand is there from parents.
Ross said the district gets as many calls from parents who want less structured English immersion for their children as he does from parents who want more. He also said the waiver program that allows parents to put their children into a bilingual class has more than doubled from 11,000 to 23,000.
“I hear the complaint that not enough primary language is being used in Model B,” he said.