On elementary school campuses across Ventura County, the post-bilingual era

is ushering in a revolution in language and learning likely to grow more

chaotic–and more contentious–as the school year shifts into high gear.

As educators launch English-immersion programs to comply with a June

initiative aimed at banning bilingual education, supporters of the measure are

looking hard at whether local school districts are properly applying the new law

and are threatening lawsuits against any that refuse.

Already, proponents contend that the Oxnard Elementary and Ventura Unified

school districts may have strayed from temporary guidelines established to

implement the new law.

Those guidelines require that nearly all instruction be in English, but allow

parents, under certain circumstances, to place children in traditional bilingual

classes after 30 days.

Officials in both districts say there is no truth to those claims, but

acknowledge that parents of limited-English speakers are being presented a range

of educational options as allowed by the new law.

In the meantime, teachers and administrators across the county are learning

as they go, replacing native language instruction with English-immersion

programs that some educators say remain largely ill-defined and untested.

Even on campuses where such programs have been up and running for a while,

this new age of English dominance is producing plenty of uncertainty:

* At Hathaway Elementary near Port Hueneme, first-grade teacher Teri Vasquez

worries that her students will fall behind as they are forced to sink or swim

with English. With the school year only two weeks old, she sticks mostly to

rudimentary lessons, such as teaching the names of numbers and colors, knowing

that changes will come as the instruction shifts and settles.

* Starting her fifth year teaching third grade at Arroyo West School in

Moorpark, Jennifer Fernandez wonders how her students will cope in the new

English-only environment. To ensure she follows the law, she is spending her

final days before school starts Wednesday replacing the dual-language bulletin

boards and posters that peppered her classroom walls last year with new ones in

English only.

* In the year-round Oxnard Elementary School District, where school has been

in session for about a month, the parents of more than 3,000 youngsters already

have asked to have their children returned to traditional bilingual education

classes at the end of 30 days.

That includes all 20 first-graders in Leslie Nateras’ class at Cesar Chavez

School in Oxnard’s La Colonia barrio.

“The parents here aren’t concerned so much about English; they know that will

come,” said Nateras, an Oxnard native and the product of local schools.

“They’re more concerned about whether their children know how to read, about

whether they can do science and math,” she said. “But right now, all of those

core academics are on hold. It’s kind of like we’re moving in slow motion and

that’s a shame.”

Overwhelming Approval

Indeed, the statewide ballot measure–known as Proposition 227–drew fierce

opposition from educators and others who argued that bilingual education was the

best way to teach English and ensure that students kept pace in other core


The argument, however, carried little weight with voters.

Californians approved the June measure by an overwhelming margin, embracing

the argument that 25 years of bilingual education had failed public school

children and placed them at a competitive disadvantage.

Sponsored by Silicon Valley computer software entrepreneur Ron K. Unz, the

new law requires virtually all classroom instruction to be in English, but

allows use of a child’s native language for concept clarification whenever


Traditional bilingual programs included English language training, but taught

science, math and other topics in the native language.

Under the state guidelines, limited-English speakers are to receive one year

of English-immersion instruction, then go directly into mainstream classes.

Those guidelines mostly apply to students 10 years and younger, since most

older students already receive a fair amount of English-language instruction.

On a larger scale, two Ventura County elementary districts–Oxnard and

Hueneme–have asked the state Board of Education for one-year exemptions from

the new law to allow time to create better English-immersion programs.

Operating under emergency guidelines, districts across the county have

scrambled over the summer to set up such programs.

Some have created specialized 30-day teaching units to coincide with the

first day parents can formally apply for waivers to return to bilingual classes,

a move blasted by English-immersion proponents who say some districts are more

concerned with preserving the old way of doing things than with complying with

the new law.

With so much open to interpretation, educators and others say they hope some

of the more contentious issues get resolved next month when the state Board of

Education releases permanent guidelines for putting the new law into practice.

Ventura County schools “are living by the law and have worked real hard in

this short period of time to put together lessons and units that are as

meaningful as possible for these kids,” said Cliff Rodrigues, a Ventura Unified

school board member and director of bilingual education for the county schools


“I think it’s fair to say we didn’t want this to pass,” he said. “But as we

move forward, I think everyone is saying we’re going to do the best job we can

for the kids.”

Circumvention Suspected

But it’s the very question of what’s best for schoolchildren that remains in


Proponents of the measure contend that some districts across the state are

doing everything they can to circumvent the law.

Some have even gone as far as to hold back core academic instruction in

English-immersion classes as a way of strong-arming parents into signing waivers

returning their children to bilingual classes, said Sheri Annis, spokeswoman for

English For The Children.

The Los Angeles-based group helped spearhead the June ballot initiative and

has vowed to monitor implementation of the measure.

“Unfortunately, it has been proven to us that we cannot rely solely on school

districts to comply with the law,” Annis said. “Rather than trying to find

creative ways of circumventing the law, we would hope that school districts and

teachers will look to implement the most successful English immersion program


Annis said complaints already have been lodged against districts across the

state, including a couple in Ventura County.

In Ventura, Annis said, the parent of an English-speaking child at one

elementary school was concerned about waivers handed out at a recent open house

allowing parents to choose among three instructional programs: English

immersion, bilingual education and a mainstream program without special

assistance for English-language speakers.

The teacher already had marked the second option for a bilingual education

program, a choice that is supposed to be left up to parents.

And from someone in the Oxnard district, Annis said, she received a complaint

about the wording on a letter sent home to parents explaining the difference

between the English immersion program and the traditional bilingual education


In one case, the information says that English as a Second Language–a

program that traditionally focuses on teaching language–will replace academic

instruction. Annis said the law calls for “structured English immersion,” a

program designed to promote English acquisition while also teaching core

academic content.

Annis said she thinks such mistakes are deliberate, designed to push parents

back into bilingual programs.

“It just shows the resistance to change within the academic community,” said

Annis, noting that the initiative enables parents to sue educators who violate

its provisions and fail to provide appropriate English-language instruction.

“Unfortunately, it’s probably going to take some legal response to implement

the change,” she said. “I think once principals and administrators realize they

can be held personally responsible for violating the law they’ll stop

second-guessing the voters.”

Creating Programs on Short Notice

But across Ventura County, educators say nothing could be further from the


On short notice and with little guidance, they say, teachers and

administrators have created immersion programs for thousands of youngsters who

were in bilingual programs last year. And as those programs move forward, they

say, they want to make parents aware of all their curriculum choices.

“We see this as a parental choice issue and we see it as our obligation to

try to inform parents about their choices in a fair and even-handed way,” said

Jennifer Robles, bilingual program coordinator for the Ventura Unified School


In the situation mentioned by Annis, Robles said, waivers were handed to the

parents of English-speaking students in an upper-grade classroom where some

Spanish was going to be taught as a second language.

In an abundance of caution and to ensure compliance with the law, she said,

the teacher had parents sign waivers to allow such bilingual instruction. While

parents should have been allowed to check that option themselves, Robles said

the teacher already had asked their approval and checked the box to reflect

their preference.

Robles said all teachers, especially those who deal with

limited-English-speaking children, have been told repeatedly to explain all

options to parents while making it clear they have the final say.

So confident are Ventura officials in the English-immersion program they have

created that they took the unusual step Friday of inviting Annis to the district

to have a look around.

“I can honestly say we’re not trying to push any direction,” Robles said. “We’re honestly giving it a fair trial so that parents can make an informed

choice. We’re trying to do the right thing.”

Educators in the Oxnard elementary district, where 7,500 of the 15,000

students are classified as having limited English proficiency, say they are

giving English immersion a similar test run.

Despite the wording on some information letters, officials said, the

district’s program follows state guidelines, delivering core academic

instruction primarily in English. And they say there has been no effort to

encourage parents to shift their children back to bilingual classes.

Nevertheless, the parents of more than 3,000 children have chosen to do

exactly that. Although the school board can’t approve those waivers until the

initial 30-day period is over, district officials have said they will grant

those requests unless there is good reason not to.

“We’re asking parents to be active consumers in their children’s education,”

said Connie Sharp, who oversees curriculum and instruction for the district. “I

think that’s essential.”

That’s what Jose Martin did.

The 31-year-old Oxnard truck driver stood outside his daughter’s first-grade

classroom at Cesar Chavez Elementary, watching students struggle to learn in the

new English-only environment. In the end, he decided to ask that she be returned

to a bilingual classroom.

He was not alone. Of the 220 students in first through third grades in two

tracks at the school, the parents of all but 10 have petitioned for their

children to return to native-language instruction.

“The majority of the parents don’t speak English and they’re not even able to

help their children with their homework,” said Martin, picking up his 6-year-old

daughter, Yanely, from school last week. “I don’t know why they had to make

these changes. Our children need to learn in a language they understand.”

Few Changes in East County

Some districts have had to make more changes than others.

The law has prompted little change for educators in Thousand Oaks, Simi

Valley and Oak Park, where few bilingual programs existed before Proposition


In Simi Valley, where both bilingual and immersion programs had been

available, administrators have gone back to an immersion-only curriculum for

their 1,500 limited English speakers.

And in Thousand Oaks, officials already relied exclusively on a structured

immersion program to teach the nearly 1,500 limited-English speaking students in

the Conejo Valley district.

In the east county, the Moorpark Unified district has had the most work to


Teachers there spent their final days of summer trying to figure out how the

new law would affect them in the classroom. A six-page question and answer

handout distributed to every teacher in the district explained some of the


One of the first things third-grade teacher Fernandez noticed was that her

classroom displays would have to be solely in English.

So she spent a recent morning at Arroyo West School in Moorpark making

changes to comply with the new law. A poster, once explaining in English and

Spanish what to do when Fernandez puts her hand in the air, became an

English-only display.

Last year’s version of the poster called “Give Me Five” held the dual

message: “Eyes on the speaker” and “Mirando al que habla.” The new version

explains the rule only in English, although Fernandez drew a pair of eyes to

help students understand.

“I’m trying to figure out ways to make it more visual,” she said.

Classroom preparation was about the same for Jenny Peters-Brooks, another

third-grade teacher. She cut off and taped over the Spanish portions of posters

in her class.

Both teachers said the district has provided guidance on what they can and

can’t say in class, but that there are still plenty of unanswered questions.

“We’re just figuring it out,” Peters-Brooks said. “We’re trying to follow the

law the best we can.”

Simple Lessons in English Only

Across the county at Hathaway Elementary in the Hueneme district, Vasquez

said she is trying to do the same thing in her first-grade class.

For the first time in her 14-year career, not a single word on a classroom

poster or bulletin board is in Spanish. And for now, at least during the first

30 days of English immersion, she is sticking to simple instruction such as

teaching the names of colors and numbers.

“I want to teach them things, but I can’t,” said Vasquez, adding that most of

her students don’t have enough English skills to push any further right now. “I’m not teaching any reading. I can’t teach letters, I can’t teach sounds. And

by the time I can teach it, two months of the school year will have been


Still, she presses on. She sings songs in English and her youngsters follow

along. She introduces numbers and the concept of writing between the lines, and

that too is done in English.

No matter what language is spoken, some things never change. Silly songs

about shoulders and toes still send youngsters into giggling fits. And recess is

still the best time of the day. And in Vasquez’s class, the way to go to recess

is to be able to count the number of times she claps her hands.

Most students keep pace and shout the number in English. Five-year-old

Bernardo Silva, however, listens carefully and shouts, “cinco.”

“Very good, Bernardo,” Vasquez says, “but how many is that in English?”

He thinks a bit and then shouts, “five.” He’s out the door and on the

playground before the word stops echoing in the classroom.

Vasquez concedes that Proposition 227 is not the worst thing ever to happen

to education. The kids who fall behind will be able to catch up, she said,

although they probably will have to sacrifice lessons in art or music to do so.

And parents could simply choose to shift their youngsters back to bilingual

classes, meaning she could end up teaching just as she did last year.

“Hopefully parents will do what’s best for the kids,” she said. “That’s all

any of us are trying to do.”

Alvarez is a Times staff writer. Hamm is a Times Community News reporter.

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