SAN JOSE, Calif. – Standing in front of her first-grade class, Sandra Villarreal picks up a dark blue marker and draws a crescent moon surrounded by stars.
“Ahhh, la luna,” chorus her attentive pupils.
In June, voters banished that kind of talk from California classrooms by passing Proposition 227, the anti-bilingual education ballot measure.
But in September, parents of the children in Ms. Villarreal’s class at Sherman Oaks Elementary cast a vote of their own, exercising their right under a subsection of the new law to request a waiver putting their children back in bilingual education.
“It’s better,” said parent Oliva Rojas. “When the basics are explained in your own language, you understand more.”
Mrs. Rojas isn’t alone. Thousands of parents across the state are requesting waivers. Even before then, many schools had kept bilingual education alive at least in some form by interpreting Proposition 227’s mandate that classes be taught “nearly all” in English to mean as much as 40 percent of instruction could be in a second language.
Voters may have said “No,” to bilingual education, but it turns out that wasn’t the last word on the controversial teaching method.
“There are no districts right now in compliance with Proposition 227,” declares Alice Callaghan, a leading proponent of 227. “It’s going to take the California Supreme Court to make school districts in California comply.”
Proposition 227, which passed with 61 percent of the vote, allows parents to request that their child be taken out of English immersion after 30 days if the student is over 10, speaks English, or has “special needs.”
The state Board of Education says it’s up to districts to decide whether to grant waivers and many are interpreting “special needs” broadly.
Ms. Callaghan said the exception, meant only for extraordinary cases, is being abused.
“We did not intend to let school districts throughout California drive their whole old bilingual program right through that waiver,” she said.
It was difficult to gauge the extent of the waiver requests since many schools haven’t reached the 30-day point yet. Some districts reported few requests, while others had rates of 50 percent or higher.
Yet to be counted was Los Angeles, the biggest district and home to the bulk of California’s bilingual education. The only figures available were a relatively low 1,400 requests out of 22,000 limited- English speakers in year-round schools beginning Aug. 3.
Some viewed the waiver requests as a de facto victory for Hispanic voters, who were 2-1 against the measure according to exit polls, but were overwhelmed by the largely white electorate. The majority of children in bilingual education speak Spanish as a first language, making the issue of keen interest to Hispanics.
“It’s the old case of people voting with their feet and in this case they’re voting with their waivers,” says Harry Patron, director of the Tomas Rivera Policy Institute, a Southern California thinktank.
But proposition proponents charge that intransigent school officials are using scare tactics to pressure parents into asking for the waivers.
They point to the Los Angeles school district, where a district memorandum states that children won’t be taught to read until they are fluent in English, which could take two years.
District officials did not return phone calls to The Associated Press, but district Superintendent Ruben Zacarias told the Los Angeles Times that delaying reading instruction is unacceptable.
At Sherman Oaks, part of the 7,800-pupil Campbell Union district just south of San Jose, the waiver process began one hot September afternoon when about two dozen parents followed the signs to the “Junta sobre Proposition 227.”
Sitting on orange plastic chairs – hands politely raised when they had questions – parents listened to their options, regular classes, English immersion designed for limited-English speakers or English- Spanish dual immersion, and were given white forms to fill in if they wanted waivers.
Some pulled out pens and began filling in the forms on the spot.
Three weeks later, bilingual education resumed without fanfare for Ms. Villarreal’s students as they plunged into the mysteries of “las silabas,” syllables.
A month before, Ms. Villarreal had struggled to hold students’ attention as she labored through an English book about a school boy in frontier days. Now, hands shot up from the youngsters sitting cross-legged on the carpeted floor as she asked questions.
Mannerly students were rewarded with a smile and “Muy bien;” the rambunctious were dismissed with a crisp, “A tu silla. Adios!” – “Go to your seat. Goodbye!”
Six-year-old Edwin, who had hugged his skinny brown knees in silence during the first few days of mostly English instruction, was called up to the board to write a syllable. A serious child, he pushed on his marker so hard it squeaked as he carefully wrote the correct answer.
Bilingual education supporters say children like Edwin learn best when they start in their own language – Ms. Villarreal’s class is part of a dual immersion program aims to produce children who are bilingual and biliterate.
Those on the other side say educational theorists are merely wasting children’s time.
Ms. Villarreal’s students have little idea of the pedagogic warfare going on.
Five-year-old Jennifer smiled shyly and answered “Espanol,” when asked which language she preferred.
Her friend Tanya pushed her chin forward as she proudly declared, “I speak a lot of English.”
At day’s end, the children dashed into a sunny courtyard, some to the arms of their waiting parents.
Among them was Ana Maria Estrada, who was relieved the English experiment was over – at least for now.
“They accepted the parents’ voices,” she said.