Under 227, Parents Make a Difference

EDUCATION: Support from the family is crucial in English-only or dual-language immersion.

They speak Spanish with their parents and English with their friends. They live in the same apartment complex and walk the same route to Gates Elementary School, where both girls finished fourth grade in June.

They adorn their long, dark hair with ribbons and butterfly pins. They have outgrown playing with dolls. They know the words to Selena songs in two languages.

Erika Diaz and Cecilia Navarro, both 10, are alike in many ways — except for their language of instruction at school.

Erika has been immersed in English since kindergarten. Cecilia has studied in Gates’ dual-language immersion program, spending about half of her time in fourth grade in English and half in Spanish.

The California Department of Education is scheduled to release test scores today that will give some indication how achievement of limited-English students — like Erika and Cecilia — has changed since voters approved Proposition 227, which required almost all instruction to be in English.

But if the stories of Erika and Cecilia offer one lesson, it is this: The girls do well in school because their parents and teachers support their method of instruction.

Gates is one of the few schools in Orange County that has continued to offer both English and Spanish instruction since 227 passed last year.

Gates received a waiver from the California Department of Education to continue its dual-language immersion program, designed to teach students to be literate in both English and Spanish.

About half of Gates’ 280 limited-English-proficiency students are in dual-immersion, while the others are in full-time English immersion.

Erika and Cecilia both began kindergarten speaking almost no English. Look at their writing, test scores and report cards, and it’s hard to say one child is getting a better education than the other. Hear them speak and their language is pure California.

“Boys, they, like, think they’re all that, like all cool,” Cecilia says. “So my friends and I, we start, like, speaking in Spanish because we don’t want them to understand us.”

Erika says: “I want to be a lawyer, because it’s interesting and you get to defend people when maybe they didn’t do something they’re accused of.”

The families influence the girls’ education mostly indirectly, not by sending them to tutoring or drilling them with flash cards. Cecilia’s older sister, Adriana, 16, and brother, George, 14, made speaking in English seem natural.

Cecilia’s mother, Maria Luz Navarro, migrated from Mexico at age 25 and has learned halting English. Navarro, who was laid off in June from her job as a computer assembly worker, supports her daughter’s ambitions to become a veterinarian. She regards mastery of English as key to that goal.

“It’s better to learn English when they’re young,” said Navarro, 41. “I think when we put the kids in bilingual programs, they are confused.”

Erika’s mother, Olinda Diaz, speaks almost no English. She never went to school in her native Guatemala, which she fled after her first husband was killed by rebel guerrillas in 1987. Girls did not go to school in her village, and Diaz never learned to read.

She depends on her daughter’s bilingual skills for everything from making dentist appointments to shopping at the supermarket.

“She helps me a lot with the translations,” Diaz said in Spanish.

Erika’s fluency in Spanish reduces her mother’s isolation. It also comforts the mother to know that Erika will keep her heritage and the mother-daughter connection alive through a common language.

“If there wasn’t a choice, if there was only English at school, I would be OK,” Olinda Diaz said. “But I like the two languages so she can conserve her Spanish.”

Erika is poised, reserved, deferential, shy. Cecilia recalled being afraid in kindergarten because she didn’t speak English. Now she’s a classroom leader who was fourth-grade student of the month in April.

Cecilia had higher test scores than Erika in reading and language. She read more books than all but five of her 26 classmates.

Erika’s scores were better in math, her favorite subject, and spelling. Cecilia’s favorite subject is social studies.

The two girls studied the same fourth-grade lessons. They built missions from sugar cubes and flour paste, worked on fractions and decimals in math, took a year-end field trip to Knott’s Berry Farm.

Cecilia’s class read “Charlotte’s Web.” Erika’s read the Spanish translation, “Las Teleranas de Carlota.” Cecilia’s social studies book was “Oh! California.” Erika’s was “California, Si!”

Erika’s class divided time between a Spanish reader, “Cuentamundos,” and an English one, “Signatures.” Erika had spelling lists in English — audition, companion, wavering — and Spanish — agricultura, colonias, expedicion.

Cecilia said she cannot read or write in Spanish. Writing in English is a challenge for Erika. She sometimes mixes up past and present tenses and occasionally misuses “the” and “a.” Spanish is easier to spell, she said.

“She started (kindergarten at) this school speaking almost no English,” said Erika’s teacher Flora Feldman. “For a child with the background she has, she’s doing very well. She applies herself. She’s a very good student.”

Feldman speaks fluent English, Spanish, French and Yiddish and is a staunch advocate of bilingual education. She believes learning other languages at a young age stimulates brain development in ways that don’t always show up on test scores.

“Our kids are more enriched,” said Feldman, a teacher for 15 years, the past three at Gates. “They’re doing double the curriculum.”

Cecilia’s teacher, Sandy Weaver, believes that teaching in two languages can sometimes lead to confusion. Some kids tune out half of what teachers say, she said, the same way airline passengers ignore safety instructions in a foreign language. But when the teacher speaks one language, kids pay attention.

“That’s why kids learn so fast in immersion,” Weaver said. “They have to listen all the time.”

Weaver divided her 26 students into three reading groups based on ability, ranging from about second-grade level to sixth-grade. Cecilia was in the middle group, but the class’ six other limited-English students were in the lowest reading group.

Cecilia is succeeding in school because of the support she gets at home, Weaver said. That’s the same reason it’s hard to tell the difference between a child in Gates’ English-only and bilingual programs.

“When you have a parental choice program,” Weaver said, “the parents are more invested in their child’s success.”

Part of an occasional series chronicling how Proposition 227 is changing three Orange County schools.

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