Teachers Starting from Scratch

English lessons tough all around; Legislation presenting new hurdles for students and their teachers.

Editor’s note: This is one in a continuing series of stories on the effects of Proposition 227 — the anti-bilingual initiative passed in June — on Ventura County classrooms. The Star has been focusing on Brekke School in Oxnard.

They started the school year in August, then had September off. Yet when Carlos Beltran and Rosa Chavez returned to teaching last week at Oxnard’s Brekke School, it might as well have been a brand-new year.

In August, Beltran had 20 students in second and third grades. Now his class consists of 13 first-and second-graders, with just two from his original class.

Chavez kept all but two of her first-grade students. But instead of teaching mostly in English, she now uses more of their native language: Spanish.

“It’s like starting from scratch,” Chavez said. “It feels like I’m really behind. I mean, here it is October and I’m still teaching vowels.”

Approved by voters in June, Proposition 227 requires English instruction unless parents obtain waivers. It put a giant fork in the road for the 1.4 million California school children who are learning English. For the first 30 days, children under 10 must have “nearly all” English instruction. Then children either keep learning in English or, if their parents request it, switch to bilingual education.

In some cases, the requirement has forced schools to reconfigure classes.

At Brekke School, so many parents wanted bilingual education that Beltran has the only all-English class. Nine classes are mixed, with some parents wanting bilingual education and others wanting English. Another 16 classes are fully bilingual.

Unlike Beltran or Chavez, Sonja Corwin, who teaches at El Rancho School in Camarillo, did not lose or gain any students after the 30 days of English instruction. Half of her students are native English speakers, while the other half are not. None of them has sought a waiver.

Corwin believes parents didn’t request them because it would mean sending their children to other schools. She said teaching them in English can be tough. “The less English they know, the more difficult it is, both for them and me as a teacher.”

At Isbell School in Santa Paula, Denis O’Leary will teach a class in which everyone is learning English, but half have waivers and half don’t.

“I will have to be careful in that I’m not addressing the kids whose parents have not signed the waiver,” he said.

The differences between English immersion and bilingual classes are heard the minute one walks in the door.

One morning, Chavez wrote the letter O on the board and asked students to think of words that begin with O. They volunteered “oro” (gold), “ola” (wave) and “oruga” (caterpillar). They copied a sentence, “Me gusta ver los parques,” which means “I like to see the parks.”

Students in Beltran’s class practiced writing, too — but instead of writing words like “rojo” and “amarillo,” they wrote “red” and “yellow.”

By law, Beltran must teach “overwhelmingly” in English. His students, however, still cling to Spanish.

“What do we put here?” Beltran said, pointing to the end of a sentence that’s missing a period.

“Punto final,” one boy volunteered.

“OK, ‘punto final.’ But in English?”

Contrary to what 227 advocates say, bilingual advocates predict that children won’t learn as quickly in English. Although he voted against 227, Beltran said he’s not using the new law as an excuse for failure.

“That’s not fair to the parents or the kids,” he said. “I’m trying to give them the idea that they can excel and do even better.”

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