True-blue believers now in English-only schools

Prop. 227 gets positive early reviews, but long-term tests lie ahead.

First-graders in Eliana Escobar’s class can add and subtract, recite the alphabet, read, write and speak ? in English.

“I was afraid they wouldn’t understand,” said Escobar, a teacher of 20 native Spanish speakers at R.H. Dana Elementary School in Dana Point. “They may not have as much vocabulary as English-only students. But what we teach them, they learn.”

Escobar used to believe that teaching her pupils in Spanish worked better than English immersion. But halfway through the first school year after Proposition 227, the voter-approved initiative requiring students to be taught in English, her beliefs have changed.

Like some skeptics, she has been converted to a believer in the new law.

“They’re little sponges,” Escobar said of her students. “They just absorb everything.”

But while some minds have changed in favor of 227, others still predict harmful long-term consequences.

“The fear is that the kids learning words like ‘cat’ and ‘hat’ won’t learn the thinking skills to understand science,” said Ana-Maria Greene, a bilingual resource teacher at Lincoln Elementary in Anaheim. “They have to learn more than English, and we won’t know that until they are challenged in third or fourth grade.”

Orange County Register reporters interviewed students, parents, teachers, principals and administrators in Anaheim, Brea, Dana Point, Irvine, La Habra, Lake Forest, Orange, Placentia, San Juan Capistrano, Santa Ana, Tustin and Westminster for a sampling of midyear impressions of Prop. 227.

For now, impressions are the only gauge of the law. The first objective measure comes this spring, when schools report how many students are redesignated from limited English to fluent English.

Another yardstick will be the Stanford 9 tests, required of all students in grades 2-11, regardless of their English skills.

“The measure is standardized tests at the end of the year,” said Gloria Matta Tuchman, a Santa Ana teacher who co-wrote the initiative. “And if they’re not being taught in English, how are they going to pass the test?”

Officials on both sides of the issue cited common problems:

? A lack of English-language teaching materials at some schools.

? Difficulty communicating with parents who don’t speak English.

? The threat of mass retentions for limited-English students who are being tested in English.

? Concerns that many ? if not most ? students will need more than one year in sheltered English-immersion classes recommended under 227.

Another common theme is the lack of impact from Prop. 227 in Orange County, where only 12 percent of 130,000 limited-English students were taught in Spanish last year.

The Garden Grove, Magnolia, Orange, Savannah, Tustin and Westminster school districts received state waivers from bilingual requirements years ago, among the first in California.

Meanwhile, at schools in Santa Ana and Placentia, parents received waivers so their children could continue studying in Spanish. One example is Rio Vista Elementary in Anaheim, where half of the 715 limited-English students are learning in Spanish.

“I’d say 227 gave parents a choice,” Principal Kjell Taylor said. “Parents who wanted immersion got it. Parents who wanted bilingual got it.”

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