In its first week, Proposition 227 has made Isabel Gervais’ first-grade class at Martin Elementary a little edgy.
During a math and language lesson, Gervais asks her students to draw figures and numbers.
“Draw five squares. Five squares,” Gervais says.
Whispers ripple through the class: “Cual es un square? Cual es un square?”
Students sneak peeks at their neighbors’ papers. Some draw figures, then feverishly erase them, unsure whether what they’ve drawn is what Gervais wanted. Then someone blurts out: “Es un cuadro!” The classmates scribble five squares onto their papers.
In this atmosphere, kids timidly answer questions in English. Some wince at Gervais’ English. Only last week their teacher spoke to them in fluent Spanish.
As Santa Ana schools embark on their first week under Proposition 227 _ which requires teachers to teach mostly in English _ critics and advocates are voicing their concerns about what students will learn.
Critics say Santa Ana’s implementation plan is allowing the schools to refrain from teaching reading and writing until their students can get waivers exempting them from the mandatory English-immersion classes.
Teachers say they are left to create their own English-language programs without adequate guidance, training or books and materials.
District administrators say they are trying to explain the language of the law as best they can. But the district is short on money and unable to provide much else.
“People don’t adjust easily to change,” said Howard Bryan, Santa Ana Unified’s bilingual director. “Initially, there is going to be some confusion until teachers and principals really digest the new terms.”
Schools have had to redefine how they place their students. They have also come up with definitions for terms in the law which are open to interpretation, such as “reasonable fluency” and the requirement that students be taught “overwhelmingly in English.”
They also have had to formulate procedures to accommodate the provision of the law under which schools must review parents’ requests for waivers after students have spent 30 days in English immersion.
But critics say some schools are using the initial 30 days as a holding period.
“There’s going to be some dumbing down (of the program), if teachers are pressured to get parents to sign waivers,” said Rosie Avila, Santa Ana board member. “If (the district is) going to have a 30-day Mickey Mouse program, where kids are just singing songs and playing games _ that’s not an English-immersion program.”
But, teachers say, students formerly in bilingual classes are back at square one.
“We are in kinder-English,” said Gervais, knowing some of her students can write sentences in Spanish independently but can only give one-word responses in English. “We’re in reading readiness. They first have to get used to the sounds in English, then put the sounds to the letters before we can do any reading.”
Gervais is gathering English phonics materials from other teachers at her school. She has to teach her students sounds and letters in English, a skill often learned in kindergarten.
“My concern is that down the line, these kids aren’t going to be at grade level, and some of them aren’t there now,” Gervais said.
Teachers are scrambling for materials, sharing teaching methods and waiting for some solid programs _ filling the gap between policy and practicality.
Students at year-round schools also face long breaks _ something teachers worry about.
Students in Santa Ana’s year-round Cycle A will get their first week of English immersion, then go on a one-month vacation. Teachers fear that while on break, students could lose both the English skills they’ve acquired and the Spanish reading skills they’ve learned.
So what will the initial 30 days of English immersion really mean?
“Our students will be reading, writing and doing math from Day One,” said Al Mijares, Santa Ana superintendent. “If any of our principals view this as a period of incubation, it is completely unacceptable.”
Proponents of Prop. 227 say the purpose of the 30-day period is to expose children to intensive English in hopes that they will learn more quickly and move into English mainstream classes faster than through bilingual education. If a child is completely frustrated, proponents say, then parents have the option to move kids out of immersion.
However, some educators say that because of students’ varying abilities, the short time line is questionable.
“There’s nothing magical about 30 days,” Mijares said. “I challenge the merits of whether a 30-day period measures anything.”
Within one week’s time, Gervais’ class is chattering in English, mimicking words Gervais reads from the blackboard.
But they have also started hugging her constantly during the week. They cling to her, seeking reassurance as they struggle to communicate beyond the limits of their English.
During a period of independent learning, 6-year-old Mariela Martinez approaches Gervais with a message on a small dry-erase board.
“Mariela le quiere Sra. Gervais,” it reads, followed by an attempt to express the sentiment in English.
“I lo Mrs. Gervais.”