School - and verdict - is out after first year of anti-bilingual education law

SAN JOSE, Calif. (AP) – Shrieking with laughter, the children race around the playing field, gleefully soaking classmates and teachers alike as the green grass under their feet takes on a slick patina of mud.

“Mas agua! (More water!),” they yell, barely recognizable as the crisply dressed youngsters who filed into class last fall for their first year under Proposition 227, California’s anti-bilingual education law.

As Sherman Oaks Elementary ends the year with a traditional water fight, the children of Sandra Villarreal’s class have reason to celebrate: They’re passing first grade.

The verdict’s still out on Proposition 227.

“It’s probably too early to tell,” says state schools chief Delaine Eastin. “I’m sure it’s safe to say those at either extreme, those who predicted extreme failure and disasters or those who predicted complete success and total transformation, may be disappointed.”

Proposition 227, which passed in June 1998, junked California’s 30-year-old system of bilingual education and replaced it with one year of English immersion.

As it turned out, that wasn’t the last word on bilingual education.

Some school districts interpreted the instructions to teach “nearly all” in English as meaning 30 percent in Spanish was OK, while thousands of parents exercised a loophole allowing them to put their children back in bilingual programs.

Still, many bilingual classes were scrapped, leading to the third big development – reports by teachers in Southern California, home to the bulk of the state’s old bilingual programs, that English immersion students were learning to read and even write.

This month, the district of Oceanside, near San Diego, released test scores showing a marked improvement. Last year’s limited-English second-graders, for instance, scored in the 12th percentile (meaning they scored as well or better than only 12 percent of the national sample). This year’s second-graders were in the 24th percentile.

Ron Unz, the software millionaire who coauthored Proposition 227, says Oceanside is an excellent benchmark because all bilingual education was eliminated for the more than 4,000 limited-English speakers.

“I can’t think of any education reform anyone’s ever performed that has produced results that quickly,” he says.

The scores don’t track individual students or account for other reforms, such as Oceanside’s revised curriculum.

But, says district spokeswoman Cindy Sabato, “there is something to be said for Proposition 227.”

On a warm May morning at Sherman Oaks, six-year-old Trana shakes with indignant sobs as he blurts out his tale of recess woe.

“He pushed me. And I wasn’t teasing,” he declares, his English coming readily even though Vietnamese is his first language.

But for a spelling test, Trana is at a loss for words, chewing on his pencil and tapping a Superhero sneaker on the floor before scrawling “wan” for “when,” and “bgoib,” for “drive.”

Trana is in English immersion because the school only offers bilingual education in Spanish. (According to the state Education Department, only 30 percent of limited-English speakers were ever in full bilingual education.)

Bilingual experts say students like Trana are an example of what’s wrong with English immersion; students pick up “playground English,” but miss what’s happening in the classroom.

In class, teacher Jolynn Linn struggles to pick up on nuances – it took her a while, for instance, to determine that a Spanish-speaking boy had a learning disability as well as a language barrier. “That’s the hardest thing to figure out.”

Trana is doing much better than last year and she thinks he’ll catch up by 2nd or 3rd grade. (Proposition 227 says English should be learned in one year, but Unz says districts have discretion if that doesn’t happen.)

Unz says teaching students like Trana in their first language handicaps them.

“First-graders generally aren’t that great at spelling,” he says. “I think, on the other hand, if he were only taught spelling in (his first language), which would be the case in the bilingual program, it would be even harder for him to learn English two years down the road.”

The carefully penciled numbers on Tanya’s math test sum up her year in Ms. Villarreal’s class, which by parental demand returned in October to a dual-immersion program that aims to have children reading and writing in Spanish and English by fifth grade.

Tanya, who spent kindergarten in an English classroom, couldn’t add 8+5 or manage more than a few letters of dictation in September. This spring, she got all but two of the 16 math questions right and a nearly perfect score in dictation.

“She has just taken off,” Ms. Villarreal says.

On the last day of school, Tanya and the rest of Ms. Villarreal’s students mark a rite of passage with the changing of the chairs, dragging in the larger models they’ll use next year as second-graders.

The neat hair-dos and shiny shoes of fall have been replaced by cowlicks and flip-flops; the children who sat wide-eyed and silent last fall, straining to follow the unfamiliar English, now chatter wildly in Spanish. (“I am just counting the minutes,” mutters Ms. Villarreal.)

Finally, they stream outside for the great water fight.

This being an ordered universe, teachers make the rules. They get Super-Soakers; the children, pint-sized models.

“Angel! Alex!” Ms. Villarreal whoops as she advances on two mischievous boys.

When everyone has been thoroughly soaked, the children trail out to the parking lot as their teachers link hands and sing, with gusto, “It’s the most wonderful time of the year.”

Next fall, Ms. Villarreal’s students will be back as the struggle to teach California schoolchildren English continues, one classroom at a time.

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