Teaching dual disciplines

Schools create mixed classes to satisfy bilingual requests

After Proposition 227 passed in June, many voters figured that bilingual education would disappear from California classrooms.

They were wrong.

Consider Brekke School in Oxnard, which began in August with 390 limited-English speakers. Under the new law, children under 10 had to spend the first 30 days learning in English. Afterward, parents could request bilingual education.

Four out of every five parents did.

Out of 16 original classrooms, nine will soon be bilingual. Six will be mixed, with some parents wanting bilingual education and others wanting English instruction.

Only one class will be entirely English immersion.

“It wasn’t a surprise to me at all,” Principal Tony Zubia said. He and other district administrators say the large number of waiver requests show that parents believe in Oxnard’s bilingual program.

To date, parents have requested more waivers than Proposition 227 author Ron Unz ever imagined. In the Oxnard School District, to which Brekke School belongs, waiver requests total 3,200. That’s 64 percent of limited-English students who started school last month. Another 2,500 limited-English students started school last week.

“Overall, it certainly sounds like they’re doing their best to circumvent the initiative,” Unz, a Silicon Valley businessman, said. District officials insist that they’re obeying state regulations on how to comply with Proposition 227.

In Moorpark, school officials predict their fair share of waiver requests. That could mean combining two grades into one classroom, hiring more teachers or, as a last resort, moving children to another school.

“This will be the roughest year because we don’t know what choice parents will make,” said Marilyn Green, bilingual program coordinator for the Moorpark Unified School District.

For Oxnard elementary schools, Proposition 227 has spelled logistical chaos. Half the students are learning English. Even though almost all of them speak Spanish, the district can’t fit them easily into bilingual classes.

Like most districts in California, Oxnard receives money to lower class sizes in primary grades. Classes can’t exceed 20 students.

Oxnard has an extra obstacle: a year-round calendar that puts students on one of four staggered schedules, or tracks.

Hence the so-called “dual” classrooms planned at Brekke School and elsewhere.

English for the Children, the pro-227 campaign, believes Oxnard schools have only themselves to blame for the logistical problems.

“The waivers are supposed to be granted very rarely and in very specific circumstances, and anything other than that is certainly not following the spirit or the letter of the law,” spokeswoman Sheri Annis said.

She also criticized the mixing of students who have waivers with those who don’t.

“Under this Oxnard plan, children are going to be getting essentially half an education. There is no way to fully nurture either group if a teacher is dividing their time between the two, and one group will inevitably suffer,” Annis said.

Stephanie Purdy, Oxnard’s manager of English language development, said the district is following state guidelines. The guidelines say that parents must be told of their right to request a waiver, and that waivers should be granted unless there is “substantial evidence” that a bilingual program would harm the child.

As for the dual classrooms, an official with the state Department of Education legal office said the practice “does not appear to be illegal.” Oxnard school leaders say the approach was used extensively in the 1970s, when English speakers were mixed with non-English speakers.

“The bottom line is if any parent chooses to opt out of any configuration we have, we will definitely honor that request,” Acting Superintendent Richard Duarte said.

In Ventura, teachers have had to get creative at E.P. Foster School, which also started last month.

Parents of 10 first-graders requested bilingual waivers — too few to warrant a separate bilingual class, so the school paired those 10 first-graders with 10 English-speaking kindergartners. In the morning, the teacher gives lessons in English, helping the first-graders in Spanish if necessary. When the kindergartners go home at 11:30, the class becomes bilingual.

At Brekke School, Tamara Thornell’s students wrapped up their first month under Proposition 227 two weeks ago. Under the year-round system, they’re on vacation until early October.

Six-year-old Lisa Flores was reading in English for the first time. She opened a construction-paper book and read in a soft voice, her fingers skimming over each word.

“Red apples. Mmmm. Yellow apples. Mmmm. Green apples. Mmmm. Blue apples. Yuck!”

Lisa also learned to write her first words in English, words such as “love,” “Sunday” and “little.”

But while Lisa was writing those words, most of her classmates were still learning to write their names. The children learned a lot the first month, but they would have learned even more in Spanish, Thornell said.

The flood of change brought on by Proposition 227 has sparked a mixture of emotions among teachers, said Rosa Chavez, another Brekke first-grade teacher.

“I think some of us are still angry, some are resentful, some are willing to meet the challenge, and some are still excited about trying something new,” she said. “But we’re all still nervous. We’re worried not so much for ourselves but for the students, how they’re going to do and if they’ll survive.”

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