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
* 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.”
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.”
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
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
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
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.