With Gestures, but no Chaos, Prop. 227 Begins

County Teachers Struggle to Apply New Law in Ventura, Oxnard, Fillmore and Santa Paula Schools

The post-bilingual age began with uncertainty, improvisation and a good many hand gestures in Ventura County schools on Monday as teachers grappled in earnest with the effects of Proposition 227.

The June initiative, which essentially eliminated bilingual education in California’s public schools, took effect Monday as many year-round schools across the state began semesters–the first wave of classes to convene under the new law.

Among those were 47 schools in Los Angeles County. In Ventura County, teachers and students struggled to apply the new law in Ventura, Oxnard, Fillmore and Santa Paula.

“We’re just shooting in the dark here,” said Jane Kampbell, assistant superintendent of the Fillmore Unified School District. “We don’t have any direction other than the instruction will be overwhelmingly in English.”

“You realize some Spanish explanation is allowed, but what are the boundaries?” said Stephanie Purdy, English language development manager for the Oxnard Elementary School District. “Can you tell a kid to get into the bus in Spanish?”

As in classrooms across the state, hundreds of non-English-speaking students were placed in structured English immersion programs Monday in the Ventura Unified School District. Three classes will begin such instruction in the Oxnard Elementary School district today, and 253 more will begin in that district next week.

Anticipating the Aug. 1 deadline, Fillmore schools opened last month with curriculum changes already in place, and Grace Thille Elementary in the Santa Paula Elementary School District started 14 immersion classes Monday.

While county school districts have drafted policies that allow instruction on safety and rules to be given in Spanish, questions remain about the law and its effects.

And some educators say a provision of the new law that allows parents to place their children back in traditional bilingual classes could cause more disruptions.

Ventura teacher Teresa Cornwell, who taught a traditional bilingual class last year, said the first day of school was especially difficult under the new initiative.

“I’m watching myself with everything I’m doing,” she said. “It’s difficult trying to explain something when there’s that big language barrier.”

In one case–a straightforward warning to a student who threw a wooden block–Cornwell said she spoke in English and then in Spanish.

“If I don’t want it to happen again,” she said, “I want the students to understand it.”

Teachers were not the only ones with concerns.

When Ventura teacher Renee Sutton assigned 20 minutes of reading to her third-grade immersion class, some asked if the books had to be in English.

“They asked if it is all right to read in Spanish,” Sutton said. “I said ‘Reading is reading, and you need to read.’ ”

The Oxnard Elementary District is in many ways a bellwether for the county. Fully 50% of the district’s 15,000 students are classified as having limited English proficiency, and many of them would have been eligible for academic instruction in Spanish before Proposition 227.

Prompted by the district’s large population of limited-English students and heavy community opposition to Proposition 227, the district tailored one of its key post-initiative programs around the section of the law that allows waivers for children whose parents want traditional bilingual classes.

English development manager Purdy said the district has been working since February on a specialized 30-day teaching unit for the new classes. The end of the program coincides with the first day that parents of pupils 10 or younger can apply for waivers for their children to attend traditional bilingual classes.

Administrators expect many parents in the heavily Latino district to apply for the waivers.

“I’m presuming that since we’re in a community where most precincts voted against Prop. 227, we’re going to have lots of parents come in and ask for waivers,” Purdy said. “We wanted to have the least disruption in instruction as possible.”

Backers of Proposition 227 let its first day of enforcement pass with little fanfare. Businessman Ron K. Unz, the oft-quoted sponsor of the initiative, announced the formation of an organization to help monitor its implementation. The “English for the Children Project,” will take calls from whistle-blowers on a toll-free number.

Unz said the calls would be logged to help determine what schools or districts should be targeted for lawsuits for noncompliance.

The new era began around the state despite the best efforts of opponents, who went to court to block implementation of the initiative and in some cases have vowed to defy it. As late as Friday, two federal judges ruling in separate lawsuits filed by civil rights groups gave the initiative a green light.

Officials of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, which vehemently fought Proposition 227, said last month they would urge as many parents as possible to apply for waivers to thwart the initiative.

But the morning went surprisingly smoothly at seven Los Angeles County schools visited by Times reporters. There was no flood of requests for waivers to dodge the English-immersion instruction that is now the state mandate. There was no defiant flaunting of the initiative. Instead, teachers, parents and students all seemed in a mood to try and do what they were now expected to, however difficult–or even distasteful–it might be for them.

At Van Nuys Elementary school, you could hear only a sprinkling of Spanish among the students who returned Monday, as the language all but disappeared from many classrooms. Youngsters who once spent their days reading and writing Spanish were instead reciting the alphabet and greeting one another in English.

Instructors who had spent years teaching in Spanish reminded themselves to speak English, even as some said they preferred the bilingual approach.

The majority of Van Nuys classes offered virtually no help in Spanish except for bilingual aides who gave occasional tips for students. Teachers tried hard to make their lessons clear by using hand gestures–one pointed to the floor when she asked the class to sit down. They also spoke slowly and clearly and they frequently repeated words for the benefit of their students.

When second grade teacher Beth Shwarz told her pupils to write their names at the bottom of their personal journals, she repeated the last two words of her instructions: “T-H-E B-O-T-T-O-M.”

At one point, she emphasized, “Please, if you have questions, ask me,” adding in Spanish, “Por favor, si tienen preguntas, preguntame.”

While they improvised their way through the first morning, many teachers wondered how they would fare in the coming days without a formal curriculum for teaching English–it won’t be ready for another three weeks–or the necessary English-language textbooks–which won’t even be ordered for another month.

“I said to my family that I can get through the first day and probably the next few days,” said first grade teacher Rosario Martin at Christopher Dena Elementary School in East Los Angeles. “My greatest concern is the curriculum. As we see it right now there’s no real curriculum.”

Across the hall, Eleanor Ciriza said some of her second-graders appeared worried about the class the moment they stepped through the door.

“For the kids especially it’s frightening,” she said. “I had two this morning who cried. They’re not really sure what this whole law means and they feel a little threatened.”

At San Pedro Street Elementary in the downtown garment district, Beatrize Estrada, a new teacher in her first day on the job, issued a hard rule in Spanish to her combination second and third grade class: “If you don’t understand what I’m saying, please raise two fingers over your head. Then I will explain to you in Spanish.”

After telling the students they would be allowed to swim in the school’s pool after lunch each day if they had written parental permission, she inquired in Spanish, “How many understood what I just said?” Nine children raised their fingers high, even as their classmates wiggled with joy at the prospect of a daily dip in the pool.

The 47-year-old former school secretary was not surprised. “When I came to this country in 1960 from Jalisco, Mexico, there was no bilingual education. So I know what it’s like to be thrown into an L.A. public school without English skills.”

With more than 312,000 students with limited English skills–nearly a quarter of the 1.4 million such students statewide–the Los Angeles Unified School District will play a pivotal rule in determining whether Proposition 227’s mandate for English instruction succeeds or fails.

The district has developed four instruction options that parents of limited-English students can choose from: Immerse the pupils in English, instruct them almost entirely in English with classroom aides and fellow students offering native-language help, teach them almost entirely in English with a certified bilingual education teacher in class to help, or apply for a waiver to place the child in a traditional bilingual program.

Parents will not have to decide which option to choose for another month. In the meantime, many schools seemed to be following the middle two options, teaching students primarily in English but also offering native language help.

Boxall is a Times staff writer and Takenouchi is a reporter for Times Community News. Also contributing to this story were Times staff writers Tina Nguyen, Nick Anderson, Duke Helfand, Louis Sahagun and Doug Smith.

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