The boy with the huge brown eyes knew so little English when he started first grade last August that the school lumped him with the lowest achievers. He came from a poor, uneducated family that spoke only Spanish to a public school where new laws forbade bilingual teaching.
Fast forward six months: Rigo Ureno is one of the top three students in his English-speaking classroom in Anaheim. His favorite subjects are reading and writing; his favorite book is the classic fairy tale “Jack and the Beanstalk.” He plows through vocabulary flashcards, recognizing words far quicker than anyone else inside Room 28 at Thomas Jefferson Elementary School.
The now bilingual 6-year-old is emphatic about which language he prefers, saying at least three times: “I like English.”
Backers of bilingual education had feared children like Rigo would suffer without Spanish in school. But midway through the first school year under the state’s English-immersion law, teachers say there are Rigos at elementary schools across Orange County. Children are absorbing English at such a rapid rate that in many places it is the language of choice on the playground, at the lunch table and in line for the bus.
In addition to being bright, Rigo has a powerful force on his side: a mother who, despite her lack of English skills and education, makes schoolwork a priority. She sits with him while he does his homework. She reads him a book each night in Spanish; she has him read one to her in English.
Educators warn that not all children have such support and that it is far too early for fans of Proposition 227, the anti-bilingual education initiative, to exult.
“It is very much more complex than that,” said Linda Sheehan, principal at Jefferson Elementary, where close to 70% of students weren’t fluent in English when they started the school year. Young children often acquire a second language with ease, she said, but fare poorly in reading comprehension and other academic subjects when they reach higher grades.
“It’s too soon to know how much they’re learning,” Sheehan said. “Every child is unique and has a different environment at home.”
Still, educators across the county say that so far, the progress is promising. In Orange County alone, an estimated 138,000 students–or 25%–lack English fluency, higher than the statewide rate of 19%.
“Most of us felt that it would take longer” for students to learn English, said Gail Reed, director of the English+ program for the La Habra City School District, where 39% of the students have limited English skills. “Even some of us that have been really strong, strong advocates of bilingual education are pleasantly surprised.”
Students in the Ocean View School District, where 19% of students lack English fluency, are now speaking the language on the playground and when they line up in the halls.
“They are becoming more comfortable with English, especially the younger ones,” said Karen Colby, the district’s director of curriculum and instruction.
“Things are going really well here,” said Dorie Staack, principal at Fullerton’s Topaz Elementary School, where 78% of students are not fluent in English. “I’m not surprised. But I’m not convinced they’re all doing well.”
Reed agreed: “They have the basics in English, but they don’t have the cognitive and academic skills.”
Some parents still prefer the bilingual path. In a few districts, large numbers of parents have signed waivers so their children could be taught in traditional bilingual classrooms. An estimated 2,037 waivers were filed in Santa Ana Unified and more than 1,000 in Placentia-Yorba Linda Unified. But in the Anaheim City School District, which includes Jefferson School, only 10 have been sent in.
Rigo’s teacher, Zoe Garcia, who learned to read in bilingual classrooms in Miami, also isn’t convinced that English classrooms are a better setup for Spanish-speaking children.
She always speaks English in Room 28, though most of her students are not fluent. They read stories and write three sentences in English, but about six of the 20 children still don’t know the alphabet. And no one, she said, matches Rigo’s progress.
“The problem with learning language is that you understand it more than you can speak it,” said Garcia, who was born in Cuba. “He understands me, I know, because when I give instructions, he knows what to do. But he has trouble conveying it to me.”
If reading and writing were taught in Spanish, “he’d be even better,” she said.
Juan Ureno and his wife, Maria, credit their son’s achievements to his teacher and declined to discuss whether English-only instruction had anything to do with it, saying only: “We are happy that he speaks Spanish and English.”
But clearly the parents play a major role here.
Every night after dinner and a bath, Rigo sits down to complete his homework at the kitchen table in the family’s mobile home. His mother is by his side.
Although she cannot read his spelling words, Maria Ureno knows if Rigo writes them correctly by comparing his copy with the teacher’s handout. The language barrier also doesn’t stop her from helping with math problems in addition and subtraction.
Before his 9 p.m. bedtime, she reads him a book in Spanish; then he reads one aloud in English. She asks him to explain the plot so she is assured that he isn’t just recognizing words but understands what they mean.
The Urenos are determined to instill a love of learning in their youngest child. In part, it is because they believe they failed to do so in their older children, now 19 and 20.
“When we had the other kids, we were younger,” Juan Ureno, 41, said in Spanish. “We weren’t able to spend as much time with them. We looked at our time differently.”
“I see that [Rigo] is very much interested in his books,” said Maria Ureno, 40, also speaking in her native tongue. “Now I have more experience in raising a child and I know that learning starts from the beginning.”
Rigo is the only student in his class who always wears the school’s optional uniform–a white shirt and blue pants.
“We believe that inculcates in the child a respect for learning and for school,” Juan Ureno said. “We think it’s a good thing because in the future he’ll always present himself well.”
Juan Ureno, who works for a roofing company in Anaheim, is the first to admit that his wife spends more time with Rigo than he does because she doesn’t work outside the home. But even if Juan is exhausted at the end of a tough day, he won’t deny his son the chance to read aloud to him.
“I like the sound of his voice,” the father said.