SAN JOSE, Calif. — On a drowsy summer day, as the wind drifts across the hot, bruised grass outside, Ms. Villarreal’s first-grade class stares at a picture of a frisky white animal with a scraggly beard.
There is a long pause as 18 small brains try to describe what they see in English.
Finally, 7-year-old Samuel blurts out an answer – “Chivo.”
Right word, wrong language.
Last year, Samuel and his limited-English-speaking classmates at Sherman Oaks Elementary would have been learning about the mischievous “Chivo en la huerta.” This year, it’s “The Goat in the Chile Patch.”
Outside the classroom, the debate over Proposition 227, the ballot measure declaring that children should learn English by being taught in English, continues.
Opponents of the new law are fighting it in court and school officials still don’t know what will happen Oct. 1, the kick-in date here for a provision allowing some parents to ask that their children be put back into bilingual education.
But for now, the education experiment is on, transforming Sandra Villarreal’s brightly decorated classroom into a crucible of sorts.
At issue: Will Proposition 227 be a catalyst for comprehension or confusion?
“Nobody’s really talked about children and the effect on children,” says Marcia Plumleigh, superintendent of the Campbell Union School District that is home to Sherman Oaks. “People in our business – that’s always going to be our first concern.”
Dark eyes fixed on their teacher, Ms. Villarreal’s students sit cross-legged in a brightly lit alcove, listening intently. Freshly buzzed crewcuts, slicked back cowlicks, and tennis shoes whose hip, chunky soles are a dazzling white are evidence of this being the first day of school.
Campbell Union officials are interpreting Proposition 227 to mean that teachers can start out with a little Spanish instruction so Ms. Villarreal begins with a quick run through a book in Spanish about a girl’s adventures at school.
The students shout out answers to questions about what they’ve just heard.
“Levanten las manos (raise your hands),” Ms. Villarreal commands, waiting until there is silence and a forest of upstretched arms to pick from.
When she switches to English, her voice slows and her movements become more deliberate. When she wants the children to stand up, she extends her hands, palms up. As she reads a book called “Walking to School,” she throws her hands over her shoulder to illustrate the line “and swing the books behind just so.” She asks a small boy if he can name some of the colors on the cover of the book. He is silent.
At recess, she carefully explains where to line up to come back in, but they end up going to the wrong door.
After the children dash out to play, Ms. Villarreal looks around her suddenly empty classroom.
“Everything is taking much longer,” she sighs.
The man who wrote Proposition 227, Silicon Valley millionaire Ron Unz, won voters over with the argument that California’s 30-year-old bilingual education system had turned into a clunky bureaucracy that held children back. The solution, Unz said, was a one-year immersion program taught “nearly all” in English that would shoot students into the mainstream.
Bilingual education supporters, on the other hand, say limited- English students have to be taught core subjects in their primary language – in most cases Spanish. They maintain that a year of immersion may give children a smattering of English, but not a real grasp of learning.
The fight isn’t over.
Civil rights groups are trying to get a federal court to block implementation of Proposition 227 and some school districts have gone to state court trying to force the state Board of Education to exempt them from Proposition 227.
Yet to be measured is the impact of individual waivers, which parents may request under some conditions. Unz and state school officials differ on how limited those conditions are and the issue could wind up in court.
Sherman Oaks parent Oliva Rojas already knows she will ask for a waiver.
Her son, 6-year-old Alexis, is usually the first to raise his hand whether the question is in Spanish or English and she’s sure he can survive English immersion.
But Mrs. Rojas would rather have him back in the program that showed promise of making him literate in both English and Spanish.
She’s not sure the politicians fighting over California classrooms have Alexis’ interests at heart, or even in mind.
“They made the proposition without thinking how the children would be affected,” she says in Spanish.
Among the decorations up on the walls of Ms. Villarreal’s airy classroom is the cover of a book called “Say Hola to Spanish.”
It’s a holdover from the dual immersion bilingual program Ms. Villarreal taught last year, one that aimed to gradually increase the level of English taught until students were getting about a 50-50 split by 4th grade, emerging bilingual and biliterate.
This year, it’s goodbye to Spanish, at least for now.
Some of the students seem to be coping, like Jessie, who masters the difficult equation – in English – of what number plus one equals one.
But others hover on the brink of comprehension, like Martin, who listens to Ms. Villarreal explain carefully in English that the class is going to run around the playing field later – not now, after lunch – and then, as the class moves on, emits a puzzled, “Teacher? Don’t we gotta run?”
On the second day of school, students begin by rattling through their vowels – “Aah, ay, ee, oh, oo” – and complete a writing assignment in Spanish.
Then, Ms. Villarreal switches to English as she tells the students to wait while she collects their papers.
About half the students stay where they are. The rest mill about, some falling back on the classroom standby of forming a line while the rest put away their baskets of crayons unbidden.
And then there are students like Samuel, a dark-headed youngster with an engaging dimple, who seemed lost when the Spanish stopped, sticking to the language he knew, saying “negro” for black and “chivo” for goat.
“I know he knew what I was talking about but he couldn’t communicate it to me in English,” Ms. Villarreal says.
(Proposition backers concede the startup of English immersion will be chaotic, but maintain it will pay off in the long run. “If it’s absolutely followed … it can and will be successful,” said campaign spokeswoman Sherri Annis.)
By the end of the second day of school, Ms. Villarreal slumps a bit, exhausted with the effort of keeping 18 lively youngsters interested and in line without breaking the language rule.
“I think the hardest part is knowing that if I was able to say everything that I wanted to in Spanish they would have been more comfortable with the routine,” she says. “The day would have been a lot more smooth for them.”