Quiet and attentive on a drowsy summer morning, the Spanish-speaking parents lean forward in their grade-school-sized chairs and recite English verbs, trying to figure out their meaning.
“Dream, dream-ed, dreamt – I have a dream!” says Aurelia Zavala, one of the star pupils in Washington Elementary’s adults-only English classes, part of the parental tutoring authorized under Proposition 227, a voter-approved ban on bilingual education.
Mrs. Zavala is realizing her dream of speaking English well enough to help her children with their homework. Test scores released Thursday show English-learning children are doing better, particularly in lower grades.
But whether that adds up to success for California’s 1-year-old English experiment remains under debate.
Ron Unz, a software millionaire who led the campaign against bilingual education, sees vindication in the scores.
In second grade, for instance, the percentage of English learners scoring above the national average went from 15 percent to 19 percent. In math, that percentage rose from 26 percent to 33 percent.
“These are very impressive numbers,” Unz said.
Others read the scores differently, noting that most children not fluent in English performed below the national average.
“It’s really too early for anybody either to celebrate or throw stones,” said state schools chief Delaine Eastin.
One-fourth of the 4.3 million California children who took the standardized tests lack fluency in English.
In reading and math, the number of English learners scoring above average on this year’s test went up for almost all grades. The test was given to public school students in grades two through 11.
The highest increase was in the percentage of second- and third-graders above average in math – 7 percentage points more for both grades.
Some argued that other factors were at play, including other education changes and the fact that this is the second year the test was given.
“It’s false to claim that Proposition 227 is the reason our scores went up. It was because we were given materials and required to do test prep time,” said Wayne Wright, a Long Beach elementary teacher.
Proposition 227, passed in June 1998, outlawed bilingual education, which let children begin to learn in their primary language and then switch to English.
Voters decided California’s 1.4 million non-English speaking children would instead learn English in one-year “immersion” programs.
That didn’t exactly happen. Interpretation of the law varied, with some districts going all-English while others kept as much as 40 percent of the day in Spanish. Meanwhile, thousands of parents exercised a loophole letting them request reinstatement of bilingual education.
Many schools did drop or revise bilingual programs, including Washington Elementary, where Mrs. Zavala is learning English.
The school offers bilingual education that switches children to English in third grade. It also provides parents English tutoring, using funding attached to Proposition 227.
For Mrs. Zavala, the class provides a chance to master the language of the country where she has lived for a decade.
She thinks bilingual education would be an easier way for children to learn English, but says immersion seems to work for adults.
These days, she takes every opportunity to practice her English, picking up a dictionary before she reads a bedtime story to her son.
“I help him and he helps me,” she said.