Proposition 227 turns adults into tutors

Under initiative, parents learn English to help kids

OCEANSIDE — Carlos Perez isn’t learning English just for himself. His education ended 30 years ago in a sixth-grade classroom in the Mexican state of Morelos, so he never learned English.

He and his co-workers on the 1 a.m. shift at an Oceanside bakery communicate entirely in Spanish. But by 9 a.m. on a recent Wednesday, he was outside Room D-28 at Garrison Elementary School, freshly showered, his salt-and-pepper hair neatly coiffed, his white pants gleamingly bleached, waiting for his English class to start.

“It benefits me and it benefits my daughters when I help them with their homework,” Perez said. His girls, sixth-grader Alisanet and third-grader Laura, already speak more English than Spanish, so he’s playing catch-up to be able to tutor them.

A seldom-discussed clause of Proposition 227 provides $50 million a year for the next decade for English instruction for adults. Perez and the other adult students receive free or subsidized English classes in exchange for a pledge to tutor children learning English as their second language.

“The logic behind it is if we are to instruct children in English it is helpful if a parent or an adult in the house also knows English so that they can eventually help their kid with homework or at least understand what’s going on in the child’s classroom,” said Sheri Annis, spokeswoman for English for the Children, the organization that promoted the passage of Proposition 227. The voter-approved ballot measure mandated the elimination of most bilingual education programs in the state.

This year, 32 San Diego County school districts will receive $3.8 million. The money is distributed by a formula based on the number of limited-English-speaking students per district. San Diego city schools get $1.46 million, for example, while Spencer Valley School District has been allocated $341.

San Diego city schools, in partnership with the San Diego Community College District, started classes in September and have about 350 adults studying at 17 elementary schools.

Ricki Martinez, administrator for adult school programs for city schools, called parent involvement “one of the No. 1 factors” in how well students learn.

Gov. Gray Davis campaigned to have parents sign contracts committing them to helping their kids with homework and attending school meetings as a condition for enrolling their children in public schools.

“Some of them (parents) don’t feel adequate to help. We want to make them feel like they are adequate to help,” Martinez said.

Rudy Kastelic, director of adult education for the Sweetwater Union High School District, predicted the new classes will draw many people who have not enrolled in the English as a second language courses that the district has offered for years.

“We will be able to offer these (new) courses in locations and at times where we have not been able to offer English instruction in the past because we didn’t have enough students,” Kastelic said.

Having the classes in neighborhood elementary schools throughout the South Bay will give parents easier access to them, too, Kastelic said. Parents without cars who may have been unable to get to adult education classes at the high schools may find the new classes more accommodating.

Kastelic predicted a new crop of adult students whose awareness of the importance of their children’s education was raised by the high-profile campaign debate over Proposition 227.

San Diego, ahead of most local districts in starting the new classes, already has half a dozen of its adult students fulfilling their pledges by volunteering in kindergarten classes at Central Elementary School in City Heights. They read to students, discuss picture books with students and drill them on letters and sounds — all in English.

There’s an added dimension to the new classes beyond traditional English as a second language. The Proposition 227 programs are geared toward family literacy. San Diego’s program exposes adults to children’s literature, gives them vocabulary and technique tips for working with picture books and helps them understand the nonfiction books on dinosaurs and other children’s fascinations.

Some programs have parents work directly with their children in class to learn English together.

Even though the kids aren’t part of the lesson, several toddlers accompany their mothers to Garrison in Oceanside. Homemaker Rafaela Velasco fought a cold and kept an eye on 3-year-old Isaac while she tried to distinguish “ate” from “eight.” Velasco said she wants to help Isaac and her kindergartner, Azucena, and she needs to learn English to do that.

“When they see their parents learning English, that adds more credibility to the children learning English and having success in English,” said Sophia Bouvier, director of federal and state projects for the San Ysidro School District.

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