Teacher finds mixed success in bilingual program

Not sure if current system is best way

ESCONDIDO — Anthony Massa’s bilingual education class at Del Dios Middle School was crowded with sports themes. A collage showing mountain bikers and snow boarders leaned against a wall, and students consulted a list of sports equipment detailing such essentials as “cleats” and “netting.”

Massa was using sports as a medium to teach English vocabulary, sentence structure and grammar to Spanish speakers, and he was trying to cram a lot into the 45 minutes a day devoted to English instruction.

“What’s this sport here?” asked Massa, motioning toward a picture of a man crouched on a board with a sail. No one responded. “It’s windsurfing. Repeat after me. Windsurfing.”

A creaky chorus of “windsurfing” came from the 18 sixth-, seventh-and eighth-graders. A few students cast an intrigued eye at the odd-looking sport, an atypical activity in their native country of Mexico where soccer is the national sport of choice.

Massa isn’t so sure that a daily, 45-minute English exercise is the best way to teach his charges but that is how the class curriculum is set up.

Escondido Union School District, which serves about 18,000 elementary and middle school students, has what is viewed as a traditional bilingual education program. Students are eased into regular, non-bilingual programs, over a period of four to six years.

Massa teaches a “newcomer class,” made up of students who have little grasp of English. The course targets recent immigrants and is also a depository for students who are floundering. Five students said this was their first year in a bilingual program, but five others said they had been in the system since kindergarten.

Opponents of bilingual education see such cases as a major failing and say the solution requires a dramatic makeover. Proposition 227, sponsored by Silicon Valley businessman Ron Unz, would convert bilingual education statewide to a one-year intensive English program, followed by immediate placement in mainstream classes.

Students with the lowest English abilities, such as in Massa’s class, have the most to gain — or lose — from such an initiative.

Statewide, 1.4 million school children have little or no English-speaking skills, although only one-third of the students are enrolled in bilingual programs. Proponents of bilingual education acknowledge the system could use improvements but contend that changes can and will be made within the system.

San Diego Unified School District, for example, just recently drafted a policy to better track student progress toward fluency in English measured against specific bench marks. Escondido Union could do the same.

“We are doing a self-assessment to see what revisions we might like to make,” said Charlene Zawacki, coordinator of the language acquisition program in the Escondido Union district. “We want to make the programs as effective as we can to make sure children are fluent as soon as possible.”

In the Escondido Union elementary and middle school district, about one-third of the 18,043 students are considered limited English speakers.

Of that number, 2,908 are classified as nonproficient and low-to-intermediate English speakers. Most of these are in the kindergarten through third grade, Zawacki said, although the students in Massa’s class are included in this category.

Students at these levels receive varying amounts of Spanish instruction, depending on how long they have been in school. A kindergartner might have between 50 and 80 percent of class time in Spanish, for example, with the percentage diminishing with each successive year through fourth grade.

The rest of the limited English speakers are classified as intermediate-or advanced-level English speakers. Most of those are fourth-graders and older. In Escondido, they take all of their classes in English, though many are taught using a “sheltered” approach, which means that teachers don’t use complicated English terms and concepts during lessons in some subject areas.

Zawacki said the district has not kept track of how many students in the bilingual program are designated as English speakers annually. During the past two years, perhaps 300 have made the leap, she said.

To do so, students must first pass a standardized test that assesses their English abilities. They must also place at or above the 36th percentile in a national standardized test taken in English, such as the SAT9, which examines students on such subjects as math and reading.

It generally takes students between four and six years before they are able to pass both tests and can be classified as full English speakers, Zawacki said.

But Sherri Annis, speaking for the English for the Children campaign that supports Proposition 227, said students need to be immersed in English right away. Spending more than one year in bilingual education, she said, is “wasting the most valuable time for young children to learn a new language.”

Room 72 typifies the challenges and small daily triumphs found in many bilingual classrooms.

“Some of these kids are learning in situations that don’t foster education,” said Massa, who has taught bilingual education for eight years. “They may be living eight to a house, or with three different families and I know that when these kids go home, what they go home to is difficult.”

Their parents are working long hours, often as garden workers and housekeepers. What the students go home to is chores such as taking care of younger siblings. Finding a place to study might be a challenge, and parents may or may not be able to help with schoolwork.

In addition, the students have limited interaction with English speakers, aside from Massa. Sixth-grader Brenda Torres, for example, takes physical education and chorus with English speakers — but said she doesn’t have friends who are English speakers, even though she has gone to school in this country for about five years.

“When we are playing softball, and we don’t hit the ball, then the others say ‘You Mexicans don’t know nothing,’?” she said, in English. “So I don’t talk to them, and I just talk with my friends in Spanish.”

Briguette Ortiz, an eighth-grader, who lives with eight other family members, said she has two friends in physical education class. But she talks with them in Spanish because she is unsure about her English. “At times, I don’t understand what they are saying, and I’ve been here for two years, so I don’t really know how long it should take to learn English.”

English lessons in Massa’s class involve reading and repeating phrases and cobbling together grammatically correct sentences.

“Essentially we are trying to do three things: introduce them to the culture, develop speaking skills and continue their academic studies,” Massa said.

In the morning, the students take science and math classes, mostly in Spanish, with another teacher. Students also take two classes in English: physical education and an elective. Massa has the students for three periods: English; social studies in Spanish; and literature, which he teaches in both languages.

During a recent literature class, the students read aloud in Spanish from “The House on Mango Street,” by Sandra Cisneros. In social studies, they have been learning, in Spanish, about the Egyptians and the Greeks, just as their English-speaking peers have been doing.

They are taught those subjects in Spanish so the students don’t fall behind academically.

Several years ago, Massa set up a two-way bilingual classroom for three periods. Half of the students were English speakers and half Spanish speakers. The idea was to learn each other’s languages. Though the program ended after a year, because of inconsistent parent support and aide cutbacks, Massa found the results promising.

“That’s why I see the Unz initiative in a favorable light, that kids will have more of a natural interaction and will acquire the ear for English,” he said. The downside: “Some students in my class are just going to fizz out since it will be much more difficult for them academically to keep up.”

The ideal progression for students with limited English skills entering Del Dios Middle School is to start out as sixth-graders in Massa’s “newcomer class.”

In seventh grade, students would take a similar class with more English emphasis. By eighth grade they would take a “sheltered” English class, in which the subjects are taught in English, but with vocabulary that is very simple.

A few will transfer out of the bilingual program. Out of the 18 students in his class, Massa estimates that on average about three or four might be able to function outside the bilingual system by the eighth grade.

After eighth grade, students move on to the Escondido Union High School District. By then, many of the 6,398 limited English speakers in the middle and elementary school district have been moved into regular programs. Of the 7,041 students in the high school district, 750 — or about 11 percent — are limited English speakers.

Critics of bilingual education say students are not obtaining sufficient English skills soon enough to become fluent in English. Some of those students are in Massa’s class.

Brenda has been in bilingual education since kindergarten, except for spending third grade in Mexico, and she is still struggling. “I forgot a lot,” she said about her English. She can hold a simple conversation in English, but then she forgets the English word for “Tuesday.”

During the sports thematic English lesson, students played sports bingo to learn new vocabulary. They filled a chart that lists various sports, such as baseball and soccer. The students wrote down the sports equipment needed for each sport, how many players and other assorted facts.

Later in the week, the students crafted paragraphs using the sports vocabulary and practiced speaking.

“Hi, my name is Brenda,” read Brenda. “My favorite sport is soccer. Everyone in my family loves to play soccer. It is a healthy sport and very fun.”

But as soon as the class bell signaled the end of English lessons, the students shifted back into Spanish.

“There’s too many cases where I find kids in this class who after all these years still don’t know English,” Massa said. “Spanish is the language of their souls, but there needs to be some sort of balance.”

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