Fresno Bee

Monday, July 27, 1998

Uncertainty Precedes Prop. 227
By GIGGI HANNA, The Fresno Bee

In June, California voters passed a controversial English-only initiative and set school districts on a rocky, winding path without a road map.

Now, it's just a week before the Aug. 2 deadline to have English-only programs in place. Ask local districts how much it will cost or what their plans are, and most say they're just waiting. Ask parents with children in bilingual programs, and many will say they're worried.

"I can't imagine that the state is going to hold us responsible to the letter of the law from day one because it's so fluid," said Jan Baird, coordinator of state and federal programs for Central Unified School District. "There's so much room for interpretation, so many terms that are so indefinite."

The initiative, passed by 61% of voters, said non-English-speaking children under 10 must be taught "overwhelmingly" in English until they have a good working knowledge of the language. But the initiative did not define what that means, and the state won't release its guidelines for another three to four months.

Some districts have decided that "overwhelmingly" means at least two-thirds of the school day. Others are counting on the impreciseness of the law to safeguard them from sanctions, should they not be in compliance.

And many, like some Fresno Unified School District administrators, say their limited-English speaking students are already taught in English.

Fresno Unified's plans for implementing Proposition 227 won't be released until after a special school board meeting scheduled for 3 p.m. Tuesday. Other districts also expect to release their plans this week.

The Fresno County Office of Education, hoping to head off any problems, held a meeting last week for curriculum developers from several county districts to air concerns.

Said county schools Superintendent Pete Mehas: "We want to help them comply."

"The voters have spoken, the state Board of Education has spoken and the courts have spoken - it's the law, Mehas said."

The law requires that children learn English in about 180 school days under a concept called "sheltered immersion," which means the child is taught mostly in English, with help over the rough places.

The initiative allows parents and students to seek waivers, subject to approval by their teachers and schools, that would allow them to remain in bilingual education and learn English and other subjects in their native language.

"There's not going to be a tremendous change in classrooms, except for the bilingual classrooms," said Rose Lee Patron, director of Fresno Unified's multilingual/multicultural office.

Only about one-third of Fresno Unified's limited-English proficiency students receive help in their native language, according to a 1997 district report. That's about 4,215 students in a district of nearly 80,000.

"The perception is that every limited-English proficient student is in a full-blown bilingual program, and that is far from the truth," she said.

Districts have a number of ways they can structure their classes to meet the initiative's requirements. Those include:

  • Grouping different grades of children into the same classes, based on their English-speaking level.
  • Transferring children from one school to another to get the numbers to create full classes of students with similar abilities.
  • Conducting a classroom-within-a-classroom, where limited-English speakers are learning with English speakers, but with help from tutors.
  • Keeping non-English-speaking students in a separate classroom.

Like Patron, Maria Lawson, vice principal at Lane Elementary School in Fresno, said she doesn't think the proposition will cause major changes in bilingual teaching when school starts again.

About half of the school's 1,300 students have limited English skills. Most are already learning in English classes with help from tutors in their primary language, she said. The only bilingual classes offered at Lane are for Spanish speakers - there are two in each grade from kindergarten through fourth.

No matter what district officials say, some parents are wary of the changes.

Guadalupe Ventura, whose 8-year-old daughter is in a second-grade bilingual class at Rowell Elementary School in Fresno, plans to ask for a waiver. Superintendent Carlos Garcia said he doesn't know how many parents will follow suit, but doesn't expect a large number to apply, or need to.

"I think the guidelines will be fair," he said.

Ventura isn't so sure. Her daughter, Alejandra, is a straight-A student who reads English, is artistic and a good thinker. But she doesn't speak the language. The girl, and her mother, are worried about what will happen in class next year.

"She's really scared," Ventura said through an interpreter.

Despite all the uncertainty, local districts said the changes haven't caught them completely unprepared.

Fresno Unified has more than 1,000 teachers qualified to teach non-native speakers and there won't be a need for any new hires, Garcia said.

Garcia estimated the costs for his district to supplement textbooks and instructional materials would be about $500,000.

In Kerman, the district already had a successful bilingual program that transitioned students into English-only classes by the fourth grade.

Students there will have regular English-language text books but they will be supplemented with visual aids to help them grasp the content of the material, even if they can't understand all the words.

Visalia Unified doesn't have a concrete plan yet, but Superintendent Linda Gonzalez said the district would comply with the state regulations.

Clovis Unified officials don't plan to change a thing in their bilingual program, which serves about 200 students.

"We don't do teaching in other languages," said James Fugman, deputy superintendent for Clovis Unified. "Probably 95% of instruction is in English."