Schools without Spanish

Teachers alter classrooms to accommodate Proposition 227

Editor’s note: This is the first in an ongoing series of stories about the effects of Proposition 227 on Ventura County schools. The anti-bilingual education measure was approved by 61 percent of voters this summer and is now being implemented in local schools. Throughout the school year, the Star will visit classrooms at two Ventura County schools to see how the changes are affecting teachers and students.

On the first day of school, Oxnard teacher Rosa Chavez usually reads her first-graders a story about an apple tree and has them draw pictures of words appearing in the book.

On Tuesday, Chavez started the new year at Norman Brekke School with the same book — but in English, not Spanish. Instead of handing students cards labeled “semillas,” “fruta” and “invierno,” Chavez gave them cards saying “seeds,” “fruit” and “winter.”

Life under Proposition 227, which bans bilingual education unless parents receive an exemption, began Tuesday for most students in the Oxnard School District. Half of the elementary district’s 15,000 students have limited English skills, making it the district in Ventura County most affected.

Under Proposition 227, children under 10 must spend 30 days in an English immersion class. If parents request a waiver and the school grants it, students can move into a bilingual class after that.

The Oxnard district began preparing for Proposition 227 months before voters approved it. Since then, the district has drafted new guidelines and lesson plans, and teachers have learned more about the initiative at workshops and meetings. (For instance, it’s OK to use some Spanish to help students understand a lesson. But at least three-fourths of instruction must be in English.)

Chavez and two other first-grade teachers went a step further. Together, they planned lessons with an apple theme for the first month of school.

As students sat cross-legged on the floor, Chavez explained the classroom rules. She read a book in English about an ill-behaved monkey who goes to school.

“He pushed a little girl,” Chavez reads. “Is that nice?” she asks the class.

“No,” the children respond together.

But when Chavez asks them the meaning of “respect,” the room goes silent. Only when she repeats the word in Spanish do a few children volunteer definitions.

Down the hall, first-grade teacher Tamara Thornell has made changes of her own. Normally, she reads a Spanish book on the first day. But on Tuesday, she picked a book in English that her students heard last year in Spanish — “The Little Engine That Could.”

Thornell eased her students into the year by putting them into small groups for hands-on activities, like making Froot Loop necklaces and playing with puppets. She decided to wait a day before starting the apple unit she, Chavez and another teacher mapped out.

“I just want them to go home feeling comfortable and liking school and feeling confident,” she said.

Thornell also decided not to hang posters with Spanish. “I don’t want to have words on the wall I can’t encourage them to use,” she explained.

Having to instruct in English means teachers won’t be able to cover topics in the same depth, said Stephanie Purdy, Oxnard’s manager of English language development. “We modify, we simplify, we limit and we slow down,” she said.

By placing Proposition 227 on the June ballot, Silicon Valley entrepreneur Ron Unz sought to end bilingual education in California. He called the practice of teaching immigrant children in their native tongue a complete failure. To succeed, he argues, children must learn in English.

Opponents of the measure believe children do better learning the three R’s in their own language while gradually moving into English. Teaching children in a language they don’t understand cheats them of a good education, the reasoning goes.

On Tuesday, Chavez said, her students spent the day learning basic vocabulary words for the apple tree story. Last year, learning in Spanish, her students would have spent more time talking about the characters and predicting what happens next in the story — higher-level skills.

More changes lie ahead. Because some parents will request waivers, teachers likely will see their classes split up after the first month. And the teachers don’t know whether they’ll keep teaching in English or go back to bilingual teaching — it all depends on the number of waivers granted. So far, the requests number about 1,700.

“It is stressful to think about who’s going to be here, who’s going to leave and how it’s all going to turn out in the end,” Chavez said.

Her solution? “I do the best I can and help them the best way I know how. That’s the only thing I can do.”

— Holly Hacker covers K-12 education for the Star. She can be reached at 655-5897 or by e-mail at [email protected]

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