The world was supposed to change dramatically for Vicky Esparza’s second-grade bilingual class last week.
Her students are among the first in California to be taught under Proposition 227, the voter-approved initiative aimed at banishing bilingual education from public schools.
But when the long arm of the new law tapped Esparza on the shoulder Monday, she and her Spanish-speaking students barely noticed.
“I don’t see it really affecting me that much,” said Esparza, a teacher at Santee Elementary in East San Jose’s Franklin-McKinley School District. “I’ve always done a lot of English, along with the Spanish.”
Most schools do not have to comply with the new law — which requires instruction mostly in English — until their school year starts in a few weeks.
But year-round schools, such as those in the Franklin-McKinley School District, began to feel the effects last week.
If Esparza’s class is any indication, how the changes play out could vary dramatically from district to district or even classroom to classroom.
Under the old system, many non-English-speaking children received between half and 90 percent of their instruction in their home language until they became fluent in English.
Transition may be easy
Some teachers, accustomed to teaching most of the day in Spanish or another language, could be in for a rude awakening. But many teachers, such as Esparza, who are accustomed to using more English, may find the transition relatively painless.
“People do not understand what bilingual education is,” Esparza said. “People think they’re coming to school and being taught in another language. But the goal is to make them fluent in English.”
Esparza’s comfort level is no doubt aided by her district’s relatively liberal interpretation of the law.
The initiative, overwhelmingly approved by voters June 2, calls for non-English-speaking students to spend a year in a class taught “overwhelmingly” in English before being moved into regular classrooms.
School districts have been left to interpret “overwhelmingly” by themselves. Franklin-McKinley is saying instruction should be English 60 percent of the day and in a student’s native language for 40 percent of the day. Officials were originally only going to require English for 51 percent of the day.
“But we felt this met more with the intent of the law,” Santee Principal Suzanne LaBare said.
On a recent weekday morning, Esparza’s lesson about shapes and colors was almost entirely in English. Although they are all native Spanish-speakers, most of the students appeared to comprehend what she said, and most of the dialogue between the students and Esparza was in English.
“Look at this corner over here,” Esparza said, holding up a sheet of paper with shapes on it. “What shape is this?”
“Rectangle!” a boy shouted out.
But Spanish has not been banished. One boy named Ivan appeared to have difficulty understanding Esparza, and on several occasions she talked to him in both English and Spanish.
“Can someone tell me what shape this is?” Esparza asked the class. Ivan held up a crayon to suggest a particular color.
“Not color,” Esparza says. “What shape? No color. ?Qu? forma?”
“To force a child like Ivan to speak English before he’s ready — you need to reach them in their own language,” Esparza said. “I’ll give him what he needs in Spanish to understand the concepts. It does me no good to speak to him in English if he doesn’t understand anything.”
Many of the materials Esparza uses are also bilingual. At one point, Esparza had students fold pre-printed pieces of paper into a book. It had two titles: “Hello! I’m Miguelito!” and “?Hola! ?Soy Miguelito!”
“The book is in English or Spanish,” she told the class. “But we can read it both ways.”
Santee uses a national reading program called “Success for All,” which pulls students out of class for about an hour for intensive reading instruction. Esparza said teachers have been told that instruction should remain in Spanish.
The legality of Franklin-McKinley’s interpretation of the law is unclear. Superintendent Larry Aceves said the district has every intent of complying with the law.
Unz stresses his intent
But Proposition 227 author Ron Unz, in a statement released July 29, said, “nearly all classroom instruction” should be in English, “with little or no use of the child’s native language.
“Teachers may use a minimal amount of the child’s native language when necessary,” Unz wrote, “but no subject matter shall be taught in any language other than English and children in such a program learn to read and write solely in English.”
Now that his initiative is part of the education code, Unz has little say over how it is carried out. But the law does allow parents to sue if they feel a school is intentionally violating the law.
But there are other ways for foreign-language instruction to survive.
Despite its characterization as an English-only mandate, Proposition 227 allows several opportunities for parents to request bilingual instruction through special waivers.
LaBare said parents will be offered three choices: a traditional bilingual class, a “structured English immersion class” where the whole day is in English and “sheltered English,” where English instruction is supplemented with some teaching in the student’s home language.
Aceves said he expects many parents — in a district where 53 percent of the students are considered limited English proficient — to opt for the bilingual classes.
“We’re going to work it out child-by-child,” he said. “We may have parents who say, `I only want my children in English,’ and we’ll do that. But we’re probably going to end up with a lot of waivers.”
That creates an organizational nightmare for LaBare and principals around the state.
Regardless of where they ultimately end up, all students must spend the first 30 days of school being taught primarily in English. During that time, parents can decide whether they want to keep their children in the predominantly English classes, or if they want bilingual instruction.
Until parents make those decisions, school officials are left to wait and wonder which students will end up where.
LaBare worries that she will end up with a complicated mix of students, where maybe six second-graders want bilingual classes and 32 third-graders want English instruction.
By law, parents must visit the school when applying for a waiver from the English instruction. So Santee is planning four or five parent meetings this month to explain the options to parents.
“The biggest unknown is how many (parents) we can bring in,” LaBare said. “I want the parents to know the programs they can opt for. They need to know.”