Learning Language of Compliance

Schools Grapple with Prop. 227 Changes

A young girl who would only speak to her teacher in Spanish a few weeks ago now regularly approaches speaking English.

A young Latino boy raises his hand as often as his native English- speaking classmates, answering questions his teacher would normally have asked him in Spanish.

But for all the success stories coming out of Proposition 227 on Moorpark Unified School District campuses, there also are tales of children tuning out their lessons or acting up because they don’t understand the language.

But because of new regulations that went into effect last month at the start of school, teachers have had to reach them all.

“So much of learning has to do with our confidence and attitudes,” said Flory School fourth-grade teacher Arlys Escobar. “For every group of students, some are going to be fine because of the way they are personally and some will be discouraged and reluctant.”

Since the passage of Proposition 227, schools have had to reconfigure classes to accommodate students with limited English proficiency into new “standard English immersion” classrooms.

The new law, approved by 61 percent of state voters last June, requires that students be taught almost entirely in English. But it also allows exceptions – for students who are found to have special physical, emotional, psychological or educational needs that would be better served by a bilingual course.

All students younger than 10 were required to be in the English- only environment for 30 days after the start of classes. That period ended Friday.

Now, Moorpark Unified School District officials have begun notifying parents if their waiver requests to transfer their children into bilingual classes have been approved.

Marilyn Green, the district’s coordinator of special projects, said that not all waiver requests were accepted.

The district has a total of 1,232 students with limited English proficiency. By Friday, the district had received reports from each school stating the percentages of their LEP students applying for waivers.

On average, those schools said about 50 percent of their LEP students had been granted waivers.

Escobar said three of the 10 LEP students in her class have received waivers. Ironically, they are the three with the highest English proficiency. She said the school was still working out how the students will be grouped and in which classes.

Green said she thought the number of waiver requests among Moorpark families would be much closer to 70 or 80 percent – the percentage of Latino voters who cast ballots against the measure.

To inform parents of their options, district officials held site meetings at individual schools and scheduled conferences with parents where teachers told them where their children might best fit.

But educators were careful to let parents make their own decisions about whether to sign the waivers.

“We have a real obligation to provide that kind of outreach to parents,” Green said. “That doesn’t mean we’re out there trying to solicit waivers. We are out there trying to inform them just what does this mean. There is a lot of fear out there.”

The misconception that students and teachers are forbidden to speak any language other than English in the classroom was one of the first dispelled.

On a recent morning in Escobar’s class, the teacher gave all instructions and lessons to her class in English, including to LEP students.

But once students were turned loose to begin their writing assignments, Escobar gave individual instructions to students who needed clarification in their native language.

That, educators said, is well within the letter and spirit of the law.

“A good teacher would use whatever tools available to them to help a student who seemed confused or didn’t understand the lesson,” said District Superintendent Tom Duffy. “And if one of the tools is to use their native language, we’re supportive of them using that tool.”

The reasons parents gave for requesting waivers or not requesting them are varied.

“In some cases it’s as simple as, I want that teacher, or as simple as, I’ve seen it in the media and I want that for my child, or, my child was going to be placed in English classes anyway,” Green said.

The shift to accommodate waivers is expected to take a few weeks, as schools shuffle students around. Depending on the number of waivers accepted at each school and at each grade level, the configuration and teaching methods of a class will vary.

Some schools will be able to just shift all 30 students from structured English immersion classes into a bilingual class. Others will divide students into small groups within an English-only class to give them instruction in Spanish.

Still others will have to combine grade levels to create full bilingual classes.

Educators said that more important than where students are placed and how much of their native language they are able to hear each day is how well they comprehend what is being taught.

“We’re here to help them learn academically,” Duffy said. “They come in and have limited English ability. Under structured English immersion, they are going to be in a floodgate of English. What we want to do is help them learn English and help them do well in the core subject area.”

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