These kids eager to learn English

Carrying out Proposition 227 brings considerable challenges to Johnson Middle School.

Phil Hunter is a science teacher at Johnson Middle School in the midst of a lesson about simple machines. But these days his task is as much about teaching English as it is about science.

Hunter, one of two teachers at Johnson assigned to teach limited-English students, draws a primitive seesaw on the board.

“What’s this?” he asks the class of seventh- and eighth-graders, about half of whom have Vietnamese as their native language; the other half, Spanish.

“A lever,” much of the class responds in unison.

“And this?” he prompts, pointing to the base of the seesaw. Several hands go up. Hunter calls on a young Vietnamese girl, who haltingly tries to pronounce her answer.

“Ful- … ful- …” she says, struggling.

“Fulcrum,” Hunter says, with an encouraging smile . “Say it with me. C’mon, I know you can do it. Fulcrum.”

“Ful-cam,” comes the reply. With no phonetic equivalent to the crunchy-hard cr in Vietnamese, the girl is attempting to produce what is for her a completely new sound.


After class, Hunter reflects on how painstaking – and, at times, heartbreaking – progress can be for these students who seem ravenously eager to learn English so they can segue into mainstream classes.

“It’s slow going,” Hunter says. “Since we are required to teach mostly in English, we’re forced to reduce what we teach down to the bare, basic concepts. In some ways, it’s really not fair to these kids.”

The effects of Proposition 227, the “English for the Children” initiative passed by California voters in June, are being felt in classrooms like Hunter’s. The Orange County Register is spending the school year at three schools – Martin Elementary in Santa Ana, Gates Elementary in Lake Forest and Johnson – to assess how the landmark proposition is affecting students, teachers, parents and administrators.

The new law stipulates that teaching must be “overwhelmingly” conducted in English, which poses significant challenges for schools like Johnson, where concentrations of limited-English students are extremely high.

Yet Hunter and the other instructors at Johnson probably are more fortunate than their fellow educators in most other school districts. The Westminster School District, operating ahead of the 227 curve, in 1996 became the first district in the state to win an exemption by the state Board of Education from longstanding bilingual education mandates. Those directives essentially required that each student be taught in his or her native language until deemed fluent in English.

As a result, Johnson and other schools in the 9,500-student Westminster district began their English-based instruction programs last year, which gave them a jump on other districts. Only three other California districts, all in Orange County, also had received general bilingual waivers: the Orange Unified, Savanna and Magnolia districts.

Despite the head start, teachers at Johnson faced considerable challenges as the current school year unfolded.

The instructional program developed by the district relies heavily on bilingual assistants, who undergo intensive training with teachers like Hunter and Sally Isaly, who work with Johnson’s limited-English students. But budgetary restraints – brought on by a cost-of-living pay increase passed in Sacramento that the district couldn’t afford – forced Westminster this year to reduce the number of bilingual assistants from 182 to 100.

At Johnson, the number of aides was reduced from five to two: Irma Loyo, who speaks Spanish and works in the afternoons with math and science teacher Hunter, and Cuong Trinh, who speaks Vietnamese and works in the mornings with English and social studies teacher Isaly.


Further complicating matters, said Johnson Principal Christine Harrison, is that the school this fall experienced a substantial increase in students who are at the lowest level of English proficiency. Students are classified into four levels of English fluency; this year’s limited-English classes are almost exclusively composed of kids at the lower two levels.

“Every year is different,” she said. “This year for some reason we’re seeing more kids who speak little or no English. That makes our job a little more difficult at this age level.”

Middle-school students, as opposed to elementary school kids, have more life experience and their native language usually is more ingrained, she said.

The infusion of less-English-fluent students has resulted in a numbers crunch of sorts in Johnson’s two limited-English classes. With more kids at the lower rungs of the fluency scale, Harrison has been forced to move more “borderline” kids from the limited-English classes into mainstream classes to make way for the new arrivals.

“In a perfect world, you might try to keep them in a bit longer,” she said. “But we continue to monitor their progress after they enter regular classes to make sure we give them the help they need.”


Not that the children or their parents complain about leaving the limited-English classes. Hunter said the students and their parents constantly campaign to be moved to mainstream classes.

“Most of these kids would go right now if I would let them, even though they’re not ready,” he said. “The parents tell me they know their prospects are limited because they can’t speak English, and they are anxious for their kids to learn. And the kids themselves desperately want to learn.”

Johnson eighth-grader Hoang Nguyen supported Hunter’s contention.

“It is important for me to speak (English) so I could have friends and talk to other people,” he said. “I feel shy when I don’t understand the words. I want to learn so (someday) I will be able to help my sons in school.”

That hunger for learning was apparent in a recent early-morning English development lesson conducted by Isaly, as her assistant Trinh roamed the classroom providing reinforcement. The two have worked together for five years and “know exactly what the other is thinking at all times,” Isaly says.

The lesson focused on the four seasons and featured a wide-ranging discussion about autumn. At Isaly’s request, the students peppered her with words and events that they associate with fall: “Colored leaves.” “Return to school.” “Thanksgiving.” “Halloween.” “Cool.” “Windy.”

Another student, obviously taking a cue from the morning mist outside, suggested “fog.” “Very good,” Isaly replies. “And how do you say ‘fog’ in Vietnamese?” This is a common tactic by Isaly, to engage the students in a conversation about subjects with which they can relate and then seize upon certain words to further pique their interest.

Each of the 22 students pays rapt attention. All seem completely involved in the lesson. Most energetically wave their hands and plead to be recognized. Occasionally, some of the more advanced English speakers will translate a particularly complex lesson for their friends.

“These children work hard,” Isaly said. “They understand why they are here and what they need to do.”

The Westminster School District, a relatively small district with only about 9,500 students, always seems in the middle of California’s often-stormy relationship with bilingual education.

In 1996, long before Proposition 227 was hatched by Palo Alto software entrepreneur Ron Unz, Westminster became the first district in the state to gain a general waiver from bilingual education requirements.

That push was the result of both politics and practicality. The politics was from the Westminster School Board, which believed that bilingual education wasn’t working in the heavily Vietnamese district. The practicality was that to follow bilingual guidelines to the letter would have required the hiring of more Vietnamese-speaking aides than were employed in the entire state.

Westminster’s waiver encouraged three other Orange County districts – Orange Unified, Savanna and Magnolia – to successfully pursue general waivers.

Last January, after an often-tempestuous review process conducted by the California Department of Education, Westminster successfully argued before the state Board of Education that the state’s review process of waivered districts was invalid. That decision effectively granted Westminster a permanent waiver, much to the chagrin of the state Department of Education, which argued that waivered districts must provide specific proof that its English-based instructional programs work.

All that became moot in June, when California voters passed 227, the “English for the Children” initiative that aims to dismantle bilingual education.


The bilingual education battle ended at the ballot box in June, when California voters backed Proposition 227, the law requiring English learners to be taught in English.

Now come the big questions: How well are children learning English and how is the law being applied in the classroom?

During the 1998-99 school year, The Orange County Register is chronicling the law’s effect at three schools: Martin Elementary in Santa Ana, Gates Elementary in Lake Forest and Johnson Middle in Westminster.

Future stories include:

  • What factors outside the classroom influence how children learn a second language?
  • How do schools communicate with parents who don’t speak English?
  • Are test scores for limited-English students rising?

To offer your comments or suggest topics for future coverage, call Register InfoLine at (714) 550-4636, category 7251.

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