It was math time yesterday at Downer Elementary School in San Pablo, and 6-year-old Omar stared at his workbook, perplexed.
“Que debe de hacer?” asked the first-grader, wondering aloud in Spanish what he should do.
Omar’s teacher, Kathleen Madison, said in English, “You start on this page.” Omar gazed at his book, uncomprehending. He repeated his question. “Que debe de hacer?”
Madison pointed to the English words and slowly explained: “You go from this page to this page.”
That clicked. “OK!” the boy said, and proceeded to fill out the book correctly, counting in Spanish as he did so.
As the first school year of the new English-only era begins across California, children may speak in any language they like. It is their teachers who must use English or risk a lawsuit from angry parents under Proposition 227.
How California teaches its 1.4 million children who speak little English has become the state’s most politicized education issue. Most teachers argued to keep — but improve — the bilingual education system used for more than 20 years.
But 61 percent of voters in June agreed with the backers of Proposition 227, who hammered at a single theme: Children can learn English faster if they’re taught in English.
Now, amid a bewildering patchwork of official pronouncements and legal challenges to the initiative, parents, teachers and students are struggling with how much English is enough.
The new law lets parents request a waiver from English-only classes, but their children must wait at least 30 days before receiving alternative instruction.
In Madison’s class of 20 students, however, not one parent has requested a waiver.
“I’m amazed,” she said. “These parents really want their kids to learn English.”
In Oakland, where school begins Tuesday, Catalina Santillan attended a parent meeting at which district officials explained the blizzard of new options. The classes had complicated titles like “sheltered English,” “specially designed academic instruction in English,” “primary language instruction” and “mainstream English.”
Explanations and waiver forms in Cambodian, Cantonese, Vietnamese and Spanish covered the information tables at Garfield Elementary School. Santillan puzzled about what to do.
Her son, Jaime, is 9. Born here after his family arrived from Mexico a decade ago, he has attended Garfield for years.
Yet Jaime cannot speak, read or write in English.
“I want Jaime to be able to speak English so that he can defend himself outside of the neighborhood,” Santillan said. “But I don’t want him to lose Spanish.”
Her friends Carolina Aguayo and Maria Gallegos also considered whether to request bilingual education. If they stuck with English, they would not understand their children’s homework. And they fear their children could grow distant as they assimilate.
But bilingual classes presented other problems. Their children might never learn English, and their test scores could remain low.
Finally, Aguayo said, “Parents should be the ones to teach children their language. And schools should teach them English.”
In the end, all three mothers checked off box No. 4: No waivers.
Although Oakland is offering the English classes, it is also one of nine Bay Area districts asking that the state Board of Education exempt them from Proposition 227. The others are Berkeley, Fremont, Hayward, Napa Valley, Palo Alto, Ravenswood City, San Mateo-Foster City and West Contra Costa.
The San Francisco district has not appealed to the state, maintaining that a federal court order forces it to provide bilingual education.
At Marshall Elementary in San Francisco, which has been open for a week, teacher Andres Tobar posed a question to the 18 first- graders sitting in a circle on the floor: “Did anyone go to the park last weekend?”
“I went to Dolores Park!” called out a little girl in a blue dress.
“Me, too!” said the boy next to her.
But here’s how the conversation actually sounded: “Quien fue al parque este fin de semana?” asked Tobar.
“Yo fui al Parque Dolores!” said the girl, Nelia.
“Yo tambien!” said Carlos.
Each morning, Tobar teaches in Spanish. He reserves afternoons for English.
In districts without bilingual court orders, teachers say they are already having a tough time speaking just in English to children who barely understand the language.
At Brentwood Elementary, in Contra Costa County’s Brentwood Union district, Jennie Lund’s first- grade students worked on reading and language exercises in English. Last year, Lund would have presented the lesson in Spanish as well.
One little boy was stumped as he stared at the picture of a firefighter and tried to figure out if the word began with “f.”
Lund leaned over and said quietly into his ear: “Bombero. Fireman.”
Down the hall, teacher Rosie Camacho urged her second-graders in Spanish to sound out their vocabulary words. She said she often gets blank stares when she speaks only in English.
“It is much more difficult for them,” she said. “You can see it in their faces, and just me explaining it to them afterwards doesn’t help enough.”
When a student asked Camacho if he could read a book called “Clifford” in Spanish, she answered, “You don’t want to read it in Spanish. Go and get an English book.”
At Santee Elementary School in the Franklin-McKinley district of East San Jose, teachers are required to speak in English 60 percent of the time to satisfy Proposition 227. Virtually all the 740 students are Latino, Cambodian or Vietnamese and about 70 percent speak little English.
One first-grade girl in Pam West’s class tugged on West’s skirt, plaintively asking, “Maestra? Maestra?” meaning “teacher.”
West responded kindly in English, “Is my name Maestra? No, it’s not. Do you remember my name?”
After a moment the girl replied, “Miss West?”
When West gives instructions in English, some children respond immediately. Others watch for cues or wait for the instructions to be repeated in Spanish.
As recess approached, the children formed a neat line at the door, and West rewarded them each with a stick of red licorice. Then she said, in clearly enunciated English, “Everybody, go put your candy on top of your desk and get back in line. We can eat the candy after recess.”
A few children reluctantly walked to their desks. The rest clutched their licorice even harder — until West repeated the instruction in Spanish.
Although most parents of Cambodian and Vietnamese children at Santee have opted for classes in English only, most Latino parents are choosing some form of bilingual education after the mandatory month of English immersion, said Principal Suzanne LaBare.
After the switch, said West, she won’t have to count her words quite so carefully.