MISSION VIEJO, CA—Construction-paper faces dot a small bulletin board in the back of classroom 8 at Gates Elementary School. Captions extend from the mouths, announcing a name and country of birth: Colombia, Guatemala, Vietnam, Mexico.
The second face from the bottom, on the left, reads: “My name is Elvis F. I was born in Mexico.”
Nine-year-old Elvis Flores looks up, smiles and in English says: “I just want to speak English as good as Mrs. Delaney.”
Elvis and her teacher, Mary Delaney, are part of an experimental program started in September by the Saddleback Valley Unified School District. Instead of attending classes teaching English as a second language for 40 minutes a day, Elvis attends school all day with other foreign-born students in grades 1-3 who are being “immersed” in their new language.
The “English immersion” class at Gates Elementary is a controversial solution to a twin dilemma facing Saddleback and other school districts in the county: a burgeoning number of foreign-born students — since 1986, Saddleback’s population of limited-English speakers has gone up 150 percent, with students now speaking 37 languages — and a shortage of bilingual teachers.
By bringing all the foreign-language speaking students together in one class, the district hopes to teach them English while they learn their course work without having to hire many bilingual teachers — and without having to keep up with their English-speaking peers.
“This is hard for the kids. It’s frustrating; you can see that in their faces,” Delaney said during a recent class. “But it is a lot harder for them in regular classes, where there is not a great deal of time for them to understand what is being said.”
But some state educators question whether a program such as the one at Gates can work since many of the immigrant students are illiterate in their native languages.
“How is an immersion program going to teach them English?,” asked Bill Adorno, assistant manager of the state’s Bilingual Education Office. “I know of research in this area, and the realities are that immersion may be ineffective.”
But Maria Quezada, a language specialist who helped develop the project for the school district, is convinced that with the English-immersion program, Saddleback is on the right path.
“With the variety of languages in this district, we can only deal with the problem of educating these students through English,” Quezada says. “It is impossible and impractical to hire a bilingual teacher for every language.”
Elvis and her 25 classmates, speak languages as diverse as Spanish, Farsi, Portuguese, Hebrew and Vietnamese. They spend their entire school day in classroom 8, learning reading, math, social studies and science. Their courses rely heavily on oral and visual presentations rather than textbooks.
The students are taught by either Delaney, or her colleague Adele Walsh, neither of whom is bilingual. The conversations in this class are all in English. Some students, who just months ago spoke only broken English — if they
spoke at all — seem to understand nearly every word.
In a recent class, Delaney used large animated posters of grocery stores, city blocks, the seasons and farm animals. The students had seen these weeks before. Delaney asked them to recount what they remembered. They rattled off words and phrases, stopping to ask questions and comment on what they did and didn’t like about certain grocery items.
To Delaney, that participation is proof that, “they are learning quickly in here. I’ve already released two to regular classes, and I’ll release another in January.”
Quezada said she thinks this type of approach is a necessity for small school districts with large foreign populations. “You can’t find the bilingual teachers for some of these exotic languages,” she said. “There aren’t enough minorities going into the teaching profession.”
A state law that expired two years ago required districts to provide bilingual teachers for languages with 50 or more students. For Saddleback Valley Unified, that would mean teachers fluent in Farsi, Spanish, Korean and Vietnamese, among others.
Though the law was allowed to expire by Gov. George Deukmejian in June 1987, districts still are asked to meet the intent of the measure.
But the state left it up to individual school districts on how to best achieve the goal of bilingual education.
Saddleback District Superintendent Peter Hartman thinks immersion classes may be the answer.
“There’s no reason to have bilingual teachers,” he said. “If this program is done right, there’s no reason these students can’t pick up the language quicker.”
The shortage of bilingual teachers, particularly in more exotic languages, is not unique to the Saddleback district. Orange County Department of Education records show that the only certified bilingual teachers in the county teach Spanish and Vietnamese — and even those are in only a few districts.
“So, we have to rely on content-through-methodology; that is, a slower rate of speech with the use of manipulatives to make English comprehensible to the students,” said Estella Acosta of the county education department’s Secondary Language Program. “Basically, it’s a sheltered-English program.”
State bilingual experts fear that immersion programs like the one at Gates will isolate foreign students. They argue that whenever possible, school districts should try to provide teaching in the student’s first language.
“I definitely don’t agree with these (state) people,” Hartman said. “The way the numbers are changing so rapidly these days, we’re going to look at doing whatever works. The pilot program at Gates that’s what we are working toward, programs that teach basic English in English.”