SAN JOSE — Five minutes before recess, the silvery sigh of a wind chime cut through the classroom hum.
“Congelarse!” said teacher Sandra Villarreal, and her first-graders scurried to “freeze” in their places.
With the exception of one little boy whose gaze swiveled inexorably to the clock on the wall, the students listened carefully as they reviewed, in Spanish, the morning’s work.
Four months into the school year, the children of room H-15 have learned to pay attention to their teacher. But they’ve also been taking cues from forces outside the classroom, first from voters who banned bilingual education with Proposition 227, then from parents who brought it back through a loophole in the law.
Now, more change may be on the way as Gray Davis, who opposed Prop. 227, takes over as California’s first Democratic governor in 16 years.
“We’re all waiting to see what will happen,” said. Villarreal.
The ballot initiative sponsored by software millionaire Ron Unz sought to replace bilingual education with a one-year English immersion program designed to get children quickly into the mainstream.
But bilingual education proved tough to kill. It has survived in many districts through elastic interpretations of instructions that classes be taught “nearly all” in English, and that parents can request waivers putting their children back into bilingual education 30 days into the school year.
Efforts at implementation vary widely: Some districts report only a handful of students have returned to bilingual education, while others post totals as high as 90 percent.
“It’s a black box right now, and no one can see inside the box,” said Harry Pachon, of the Tomas Rivera Policy Institute.
No one is predicting that Davis will flout Prop. 227, which passed with 61 percent of the vote in June. He hasn’t revealed his plans for bilingual education since beating Republican Dan Lungren, who also opposed the initiative.
At a May debate, Davis said the old system of bilingual education was “broken” and advocated giving parents the choice of putting their children in English immersion or bilingual classes with a three-year deadline to move to mainstream classes.
Davis also takes office at a time when Hispanics, who voted 2-to-1 against Prop. 227, are emerging as an important new voting bloc. California has just elected a record number of Hispanic lawmakers, including the first Hispanic lieutenant governor this century.
“Anybody that’s politically savvy should know that and want to deal with it,” said Russ Rumberger, an education professor at UC-Santa Barbara.
Davis can make changes on the policy-making state Board of Education. The board has written regulations making it relatively easy for parents to get individual waivers but balked at exempting entire districts, prompting a court battle.
That could change if Davis appoints advocates of bilingual education to the board, although proposition author Unz said “the sense I have is that in a lot of these issues, Gray Davis seems to be moving very cautiously.”
Back in the classroom, Villarreal would like “to see the flexibility come back to teachers.”
She started out the year in English as the law required, using repetition, visual aids and sign language to communicate. That ended in late September when all of the parents of children in her class requested a return to bilingual education.
By mid-December, her charges at Sherman Oaks Elementary were able to work by themselves. On a recent morning, two girls put together a computerized slide show on the life cycle of a “mariposa,” or butterfly, sitting side-by-side on chairs for adults, sneakered feet swinging 6 inches off the ground.
Nearby, four played a math game with cards, quieting themselves with a hissed “Shhh! Shhh!” when they got a little too rambunctious.
Later, 6-year-old Edwin, who hugged his knees in silence during the first few days of English-only instruction, happily led the class through a complex counting drill, tapping on the board as he shouted out questions in Spanish.
Bilingual education proponents believe teaching children in a language they understand is the key to long-term success. Opponents think that’s a well-intentioned mistake, one that shunts non-English speakers into a second-class education system.
While the debate rages on, teachers are hoping the classroom is back under their control, at least for now.
“I just hope that the political arena doesn’t get in the way of kids,” said Shirley Olson, director of assessment and special programs at Sherman Oaks’ parent district, Campbell Union.
“They don’t get to go back and do it over.”