It does not seem sisterly to compare their children, but Maria del Carmen Bonilla and Rita Macias sometimes cannot help it.
Macias, 39, searches like a metal detector for flaws in her nephews’ Spanish, cringing when their tongues trip over the tildes or double r’s. Bonilla, 35, quizzes the children to see if one knows more than the other.
Proposition 227 dismantled bilingual education in California two years ago, but the debate still smolders in the living rooms of parents who were left with the authority to decide how their children should learn.
Bonilla, like most parents in Orange County and the state, accepted instruction only in English. Macias signed a waiver to keep her children in bilingual classes.
Each is certain she made the right choice.
“The more languages they know, the better,” Macias said leaving Diamond Elementary in Santa Ana, where her son, Osvaldo, 10, is in fifth grade, and Celina, 6, is in first.
In La Habra, Bonilla prefers to teach Spanish at home to Raul, 11, and Braulio, 9, who attend Macy Elementary.
“We’re sisters, but we disagree,” Bonilla said.
A COMPLICATED PICTURE
Some have pointed to increasing scores on standardized tests like the Stanford 9 since Prop. 227 as evidence of the failure of bilingual education.
But a visit to Diamond Elementary, where 925 students are enrolled, complicates that picture.
Test scores among English learners, though still below average, rose enough this year to qualify the school for state awards. Yet enrollment in bilingual classes almost doubled this year, and now it is nearing earlier levels, school officials said. And last spring, the number of students who became reclassified as fluent in English leapt from 47 to 83.
Principal Marjorie Cochran said she is pleased by the rising test scores, but points out that reading and language levels are still unsatisfactory. Only one class of fifth graders is considered mainstream.
Still, Cochran said, she is not seeking to credit – or blame – bilingual education or English-immersion classes for the changes at the school. Instead, she said she is trying to make both programs work better.
For example, she disagrees with Prop. 227 proponents’ claims that English learners can transfer into regular classes in only one year, but she also disputes claims that students should not learn to read and write in English until after the early grades.
“Every kid’s different,” Cochran said. “It’s not like mixing a couple of chemicals.”
UNDERSTANDING, NOT JUST SPEAKING
Teachers are trained to avoid assuming that students understand what they say, mirroring their words with flash cards or writing on the board. Teacher Judy Simms brings vegetables to class to show fourth- and fifth-graders the difference between “beat” and “beet.”
Gregory Geck, a fifth-grade teacher, wouldn’t budge until his science class defined the term “pollination.” Students could say the word but didn’t know what it meant.
“Most are (reading) pretty well,” Cochran said, “but it doesn’t mean they understand what they’re reading.”
In addition, the school has undergone a quiet transformation over the past four years. Class size was lowered to 20 students per teacher through third grade, so the students who know the least English are getting the most attention. The school started a parent-teacher association and a preschool for some incoming kindergartners, and it expanded after-school programs.
Every student gets homework five days a week, even kindergartners.
Prop. 227 is responsible for some positive changes at Diamond, teachers said. About 70 parents are among hundreds statewide who take English classes four nights a week with Prop. 227 funding. Also, as parents have more control of their children’s education, they are becoming more involved in school, teachers said.
“Now they’re held accountable, as parents,” said kindergarten teacher Teri LaFourcade Sjoberg. “Every day (the homework) comes back done, and right.”
Bonilla and Macias said they feel the responsibility. Bonilla’s children are in a mostly-Anglo school, so they practice English often, but she frets that she lacks time to teach them Spanish.
At Diamond, where 75 percent of the students are learning English, Macias’ children speak Spanish well. Still, she feels pangs of guilt when she misses English classes to care for children at home.
“English is important to me, too,” Macias said. “I want them to learn them both.”