OCEANSIDE, Calif. — Teacher Suni Fernandez marveled as she watched second-graders practice spelling words like “people,” “friend” and “could.”
The words would challenge any second-grader, but most of these Southern California pupils speak Spanish as a first language. And still, most earn 100s on tests in English.
What’s more, they actually know what the words mean. That wouldn’t have happened two years ago when Fernandez was teaching bilingual education classes.
“In bilingual, the words — there’s no way they would have been able to spell,” Fernandez said.
In hundreds of classes across the state, teaching flip-flopped when California voters tossed out bilingual education in 1998. They decided by a margin of 3-2 to force students to master English during one year of special English-only classes. Afterward, they should join regular classes.
A similar proposal, English for the Children-Arizona, may be headed for the Nov. 7 ballot in Arizona.
Before, as is now the case in Arizona, students in many California schools learned their subjects in their native language as they were gradually moved toward English proficiency.
Oceanside follows the letter of the new English immersion law more closely than any other district in California, said Ron Unz, author of California’s Proposition 227 and backer of the Arizona measure. English for the Children-Arizona points to Oceanside as an example of what this state’s teachers should be doing.
Last school year, Oceanside’s standardized test scores jumped. Second-graders with limited English skills made the biggest gains — from the 13th percentile to the 26th percentile in reading. The scores fall short of spectacular; many researchers say schools with bilingual education performed the same or better.
Some parents of limited-English students don’t like the change in Oceanside. They say their children are left behind in the rush toward English-only instruction. And they’re especially disturbed that the district grants few waivers — just five of 155 requests last year, none this year –that enable them to enroll their children in bilingual programs.
The Arizona initiative would make it even harder to get waivers.
Silvia Martinez sobbed as she read a note, written in Spanish, from her first-grade daughter’s teacher saying Martinez needs to help Esmeralda with English sounds, words and numbers.
“I’m desperate,” said Martinez, who works in a plastics factory. “It’s very difficult for my husband and I because we don’t know English.”
Oceanside Superintendent Kenneth Noonan said he sympathizes with parents like Martinez. But the program is showing results, he said, especially in test scores.
“Now, we’re at the basement door,” Noonan said. “Before, we were at the basement floor.”
The scores changed Noonan’s mind about bilingual education. An active Proposition 227 opponent, Noonan was the founding president of the California Association for Bilingual Education. Now he’s a supporter of English immersion.
“All I’m saying right now is that immersing kids in English is at least as good as bilingual education,” Noonan said.
When he started at Oceanside almost three years ago, he found the district carried out bilingual education inconsistently for students with limited English skills, who make up about 21 percent of the district’s 21,500 students. In two second-grade classrooms, he observed one class where students knew little English and another where children read English fluently.
Discrepancies were rampant at the Oceanside school where Fernandez teaches, Laurel Elementary School, which has the second-largest proportion of limited-English students in the district. Three of five students fall into that category in a school with an enrollment of about 700. In the neighborhoods near the school, most people speak Spanish in their homes, workplaces and stores. All but two of Fernandez’s students have parents who are immigrants.
Laurel first-grade teacher Linda Flores taught English quickly, reducing the class day to just 20 minutes of Spanish by the end of the year. But many of her students ended up getting more Spanish in second grade.
Third-grade teacher Laura Fioresi was supposed to transition students toward English when she showed up for her first day of teaching at Laurel three years ago. But her students came to her knowing so little of the language that she had to revert to kindergarten-level English. She gave up the first-day journal-writing assignment she had planned. She cried.
Teachers found that the theories of bilingual education weren’t working in their classrooms. Students were not transfering the skills they had learned in their native language, like reading and adding, to their second language.
“I’m not saying it can’t work. It was not working here,” Fioresi said.
Fernandez, a bilingual education teacher for eight years and supporter of the proposition, said she pushed students to do more in English. But she was stalled by a system that prevented students from moving into all-English classes until they achieved scores on tests that are difficult for native-English speakers to reach.
So she spent her time improving weak Spanish vocabulary, rather than building English. In reading Spanish stories, she found students didn’t know animals like raccoon and squirrel in their native language.
Today, teachers like Fernandez are instructing their limited-English speakers all in English, except to clarify. Students are supposed to move out of English immersion in just one year but Oceanside is giving them two, through second grade this school year. Next year, they will have one year of structured English immersion before they are moved to regular classes.
Students at Laurel are reaching grade level in their second language, something that happened infrequently before. Last year, 15 students in Fernandez’s class reached fluency in the spoken word by second grade. Before, in a good year, only one would reach that level.
This school year, eight students were already fluent in English when they started second grade. Now, all but two of her students are reading at second-grade level.
Students ask questions, memorize Shel Silverstein poems, and solve math problems in English. Before, they only used English for the extras, like art, physical education, music and English as a Second Language.
“Immersing them made them take it on as their own language,” Fernandez said.
The ones who now struggle with lessons taught in English are the same ones who would have struggled in Spanish, Fernandez said.
The lessons she teaches mirror those in classes for native English speakers. She uses the regular second-grade curriculum, including a phonics curriculum adopted last year, and a back-to-basics math program started this year.
Still, Fernandez must modify the curriculum so her students understand it.
She spent more time on phonics before venturing into the second-grade reading book, for example, by having students learn hand motions to go with letters and sounds. For z, they pretend to zip up a jacket; for short i, they push their noses up like pigs.
In the week before Halloween, students wrote spooky stories, like the one about a witch who was banished from the kingdom or the story of the twin witches. Fernandez defined banished and kingdom.
Some students still slip into Spanish spellings or structure. One girl wrote “witch mean,” putting the noun before the adjective as in Spanish.
Although lessons are in English, Spanish is still spoken in Fernandez’s school.
Students chat with each other in their native tongue in the classroom, on the monkey bars and in the cafeteria. During a physical education relay race, the number of students cheering, “Go, go, go!” and “Corre, corre, corre!” was about the same.
Newcomers often struggle
The system isn’t working for everyone. Newcomers, like Daisy Ortega, are struggling in English immersion, Fernandez said.
Daisy just moved back to California from Mexico, where she skipped second grade. She’s old enough to be in third grade but her skills, even in Spanish, are low.
“When we had a newcomer before, we could teach in Spanish. They would be fine. Now, they feel out of place,” Fernandez said.
Daisy is catching on in English, but mostly mimics her peers with phrases like, “Let me see.” She can put “b” with “oy” to spell boy. She whizzes through counting to 10.
But she often gets distracted during lessons. As Fernandez called names to read numbers on the board, Daisy put her head down, played with her hair and made circles on the table with the back of a pencil.
Late last month, Daisy was reading at beginning first-grade level, Fernandez said. She was still working on separate lessons because her skills were so much lower than those of her classmates.
She gets extra help from a teacher’s aide in pullout lessons and from one of Fernandez’s former students, a third-grader. But she really needs separate, intensive English as a Second Language lessons, Fernandez said.
Noonan, the Oceanside superintendent, said the district might consider a “newcomer center” for students like Daisy. He said he knows they’re hurting. For now, Laurel set up an after-school program in English instruction.
Some parents and community members say the district needs to do more, by setting up a bilingual education program for parents who seek waivers.
The United Coalition for the Education of Our Children filed a complaint against the district last year with the state and the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights. The office visited the district for an investigation but has issued no report, yet.
Waivers are the main concern of the 200-member coalition, said Ismael Avilez, a Laurel Elementary parent who leads the coalition.
Noonan said the district adhered to the law: Waivers are warranted only in special needs cases and when students lagged in English. The district must create a bilingual program when the number of qualified students reaches 20 at a school, but it granted only five waivers districtwide last year.
“They’re not honoring the Latino parents’ rights,” said Angelica Puga, Avilez’s wife and a bilingual education teacher who left Oceanside for a district with a bilingual program.
Noonan said teachers and principals couldn’t find evidence of parents’ claims in many cases. He said parents have quieted down this year after seeing their students’ progress.
Only 10 waiver requests were submitted this year. None were granted.
Avilez said that doesn’t mean parents are happy.
“It’s kind of moronic to run into the wall,” he said.
Maria Diaz, a mother of a girl in Fernandez’s class, is disappointed with English-only lessons because her daughter is slow in Spanish.
Diaz, a babysitter whose husband works in construction, never applied for a waiver. But she sees the difference between second-grader Gabriela and her older brother Javier, a fourth-grader. Gabriela can’t read well in Spanish, but Javier can read in both.
“She doesn’t learn anything Spanish. She doesn’t know what it means. She reads very little,” Diaz said.
Gabriela, a talkative girl, said she likes learning English. “I want to learn the two of them.”
Many parents, like Araceli Navarro, whose daughter is also in Fernandez’s class, are pleased with the progress of English immersion. Her daughter, Luz, is speaking English better than her older siblings.
“Last year, she didn’t speak much,” Navarro said. “Now, she speaks less Spanish and more English.”
Navarro, a housewife whose husband works in a plastics factory, said she knows all her children need English.
“They are not going to be in the same situation as I am, for example,” she said.
The long-term effects of English immersion have yet to be seen.
First-grade teacher Flores has doubts about any of the methods she has taught native Spanish speakers. In the first year of English immersion, some children never understood her lessons.
Most are grasping them now in the second year.
“One of the things in the back of my mind is, how will they think about it in 20 years?” Flores said. “I’m hoping it will be different for this generation. I see a lot of good, but I am not totally sure about it.”
Fernandez, the second-grade teacher, has confidence in English immersion. She has no objection to some learning in Spanish, but not at the expense of English as before.
“We didn’t really have time also to teach English,” Fernandez said. “Now, we have 100 percent of the time on achieving what I think is the language of their ultimate goal.”