English Only California Schools Struggle to Comply with Proposition 227

As a measure of the confusion generated by Proposition 227, consider the anonymous caller who phoned the newspaper on Tuesday afternoon with a tip: Deaf students at Hidden Valley Elementary School in Santa Rosa were not being taught in sign language because of Prop. 227’s mandate that California’s school children be taught solely in English.

The Hidden Valley report was not true, Principal Mike McGuire said. In fact, Prop. 227 specifically exempts special education programs.

But that was one of the few certainties this first week of school, as McGuire and his staff — like educators all over the state — have tried to implement a hazy proposition that many of them don’t think is good public policy.

At Roseland Elementary, second grade teacher Amelia Cerda spent the first day answering questions put to her by her Spanish-speaking students, but only in English. Trouble is, many of them don’t understand English. That first day, other students supplied translations, and Cerda used non-instruction time to speak as much Spanish as she possibly could with her young charges.

And so they muddle through -teachers and students, all over California. Some districts have defied Prop. 227’s mandate. Others, like Roseland, are dedicated to following the law, even though there is great uncertainty and nervousness about precisely how to do it.

Tuesday afternoon, Roseland Superintendent Les Crawford was drafting a memo to teachers relaxing the no-foreign-language-can-be-spoken dictate to say that classroom conversation needed to be “overwhelmingly” or “almost all” in English.

Proposition 227 passed in June because Californians were persuaded that existing bilingual programs were not working. But true bilingual education -teaching students in both their native languages and English — was never provided most limited English-speaking students. In the Santa Rosa district, for example, only 2,000 of the 8,000 limited English-speaking students were taught in Spanish prior to Proposition 227.

Now, with just a couple of months’ notice, educators and kids are struggling to comply with a one-size-fits-all law that doesn’t take into account the crucial interaction between individual students and individual teachers who are there, in the classroom, and want to be able to react to specific needs.

Try to imagine what it would be like to be 7 years old and asking your teacher a question, only to be answered in a language you cannot understand.

The only comparable experience for many English-speaking adults is to remember the high school Spanish or French teacher who was adamant that only the foreign language be spoken in her classroom. From time to time, however, she would break down and explain, in English, and get everybody back on track.

California teachers must have that level of flexibility under Proposition 227.

Thirty days into the school year, parents will be allowed to seek waivers if they are unhappy with the English-only instruction. That’s a short period of time in which to make a judgment, but Prop.227 does offer it, and we can anticipate another round of controversy over when and how such waivers will be permitted.

This entire experiment is scary and exciting at the same time. English-language immersion, if properly taught, and particularly to younger children, might in fact move them to English proficiency more quickly than the hodge-podge of programs that previously existed.

But it will take time — and great patience — for everybody involved. Particularly those voters who have never stepped into a classroom but seem sure of what should take place there.

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