O.C. students slow to gain English fluency, study says

Immersion programs are speeding the learning process, but the county still trails last year's state average.

A new state survey of Orange County’s 137,000 bilingual education students shows that only a small fraction were reclassified as fluent in English this year, even though most were taught in English-only classrooms.

That reclassification rate – less than 6 percent – is at the heart of the debate over Proposition 227, a June ballot measure that would require almost all instruction to occur in English and limit special language classes to one year in most cases.

Proponents of the initiative, which is leading by wide margins in opinion polls, cite the slow rate of students becoming fluent in English as evidence that California’s bilingual education programs are a failure.

Orange County schools – where only 13 percent of limited-English students study in traditional bilingual classes – have led the rebellion against state-mandated bilingual education.

But many local school officials who battled for freedom from state bilingual education rules now fear that Prop. 227 will mandate teaching methods that don’t serve the best interests of their students. They share a line of argument with proponents of traditional bilingual education:One year isn’t enough.

“We like our program the way it is,” said Roberta Pantle, assistant superintendent of the Magnolia School District in Anaheim, which won a 1996 waiver to end traditional bilingual education.

Magnolia assists its 2,500 limited-English students, who often spend five years in sheltered-English programs, with Spanish- and Vietnamese-speaking classroom aides, foreign-language textbooks, and teachers who use visual props to boost student comprehension.

“It’s broader than (Prop. 227) calls for,” Pantle said.

This year, 13.5 percent of Magnolia’s limited-English students were reclassified as fluent, up from 9 percent last year.

Other districts that recently dropped traditional bilingual education, where teachers speak Spanish in the classroom, also raised their reclassification rates:

. Westminster increased to 7.2 percent from 4.8 percent.

. Savanna (in Anaheim) to 7.6 percent from 7.1 percent.

. Orange Unified to 6.5 percent from 5.4 percent.

Overall, the reclassification rate in Orange County improved to 5.9 percent from 5.4 percent.

Statewide figures will not be published until this fall. Last year’s redesignation rate for California’s 1.4 million limited-English students was 6.5 percent.

Westminster’s rising fluency rate validates the district’s approach to teaching English, said Tracy Painter, director of Westminster’s bilingual education program. Westminster’s teachers always use English, but more than half of limited-English students receive help from classroom aides who speak Spanish or Vietnamese. Countywide, about one-third of students learn English with the help of native-language aides.

“We believe it works best with primary language support,” Painter said.

Most children still need more than one year to become fluent enough to learn math, social studies, science and other subjects without assistance.

“Research agrees that the basic child takes three to five years to achieve proficiency,” she said.

Only one of 3,800 limited-English students in Placentia-Yorba Linda Unified was reclassified as fluent within 12 months of entering school, said Marianne Smith, the district’s manager of second-language programs. The girl was a fifth-grader who had attended an exclusive private school in her native Korea and worked nightly with a private tutor after moving to Yorba Linda.

“Basically, all she did was study all year,” Smith said.

Ron Unz, the Silicon Valley entrepreneur leading the Prop. 227 campaign, said it’s “ridiculous” for students to take longer than a year to learn English. Unz said the redesignation procedure undercounts the number of fluent students because it requires them to score in the top two-thirds on standardized math and English language tests.

“The current system says they have to be at grade level compared to native English speakers,” he said. “If you wait for poor Latino children to be above average, it ain’t gonna happen.”

Unz’s initiative includes several clauses giving schools and parents flexibility in English instruction. It would:

. Require districts to offer native-language instruction if the parents of more than 20 students at a school request it.

. Permit teachers to speak foreign languages as long as instruction occurs “overwhelmingly” in English.

. Allow principals to use foreign-language instruction for students older than 10.

Gloria Matta Tuchman, a candidate for state schools superintendent and co-chairwoman of the Prop. 227 campaign, said many teachers keep students in bilingual programs longer than necessary because a bigger head count brings in more dollars. Currently, English learners can generate about $140 apiece in state “compensatory” money for a school district, or $280 if they are from a low-income family.

“I feel with the initiative, the bilingual bureaucracy will crumble,” said Tuchman, who teaches a first-grade class of 19 limited-English students at Taft Elementary in Santa Ana. Taft redesignated 14.1 percent of its limited English students this year.

The bilingual bureaucracy is already crumbling.

In March, a state Superior Court judge threw out mandated bilingual education because the law requiring it expired in 1987. The state Board of Education followed the ruling by dropping its policy that districts need waivers to end bilingual education.

A new state law to grant districts latitude in bilingual instruction faces a Senate vote this week, but Gov. Pete Wilson, who said he is leaning to supporting Prop. 227, has not indicated whether he will sign it.

Orange County classrooms employ a variety of techniques, depending on student needs and parent choices – full-time English immersion, assistance from teaching assistants who speak other languages, or teachers who use Spanish almost full time. But no school fits the Prop. 227 prototype.

“There isn’t a class in the state I’ve seen so far that does what (Prop. 227) would require,” said Howard Bryan, director of bilingual education in Santa Ana Unified.

More than 50 percent of Santa Ana’s 38,000 English learners are in transitional bilingual programs. About 25 percent are in English immersion. School officials say Santa Ana developed a variety of programs, building on years of experience and parents’ demands for choice.

At Washington Elementary School, which redesignated 1.4 percent of bilingual students this year, English-immersion classrooms sit next door to classes where teachers speak Spanish.

In Room 16, first-grader Cynthia Martinez read aloud in Spanish, using a pointer: “El tornado tiene forma de cono.” (The tornado is cone-shaped.) Her classmates wrote in their journals in Spanish.

In Room 8, Ernesto Rafaela, also a first-grader, read aloud from “Clifford Goes to Hollywood” and used two dictionaries – one in Spanish, another in English. But his teacher Catherine Kazanjy used English.

“Most districts who are dealing with English learners are going through the same problems we did about 10 years ago,” said Washington Principal Robert Anguiano. “We don’t want to go backward to having students sitting in class watching a teacher move her lips and not understanding a word she’s saying.”

At Pyles Elementary in the Magnolia School District, English is the language of instruction, but foreign-speaking classroom aides help students understand.

While third-grade teacher Elaine Anderson read a story about pioneers to two dozen students fluent in English, teaching assistant Thuy Dang translated the story for a girl who had emigrated from Vietnam eight months ago.

In another corner, teaching assistant Edith Castillo reviewed a social studies lesson called “Caminos hacia el oeste” – “Roads to the West” – with six Spanish-speaking students.

In her experience, Anderson said, children who speak another language need several years before they can absorb new material in English.

“In third grade, there’s a lot of important information,” she said. “In science, we cover ecosystems, geology, pulleys. If they’ve only been here one year and they’re expected to learn only in English, it won’t happen.”

The Westminster School District became the first in California to receive a general waiver from bilingual requirements in January 1996. One reason was a teacher shortage. The district needed 56 Vietnamese-speaking teachers to serve its students, but there were only 47 Vietnamese-speaking teachers in the entire state.

Another reason was philosophical: School board members believed that students immersed early in English become fluent faster.

But Westminister school officials worry that Prop. 227 will force them to undo the programs they fought to implement, substituting a new set of state requirements for the old ones.

“What we wanted all along is to have local control,” said Mike Verrengia, an anti-bilingual board member.

In February, the Orange Unified board tabled a resolution to support Prop. 227. The reason: Board members worry that the initiative could force them to reinstate bilingual education if enough parents demand it. They want local control to eliminate parental choice.

“To offer a choice is a fool’s paradise,” said Bob Viviano, the Orange Unified trustee who led Orange’s campaign for English-only teaching. “We believe the program we have is beginning to show results.”

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