Los Angeles Times

Friday, July 24, 1998

Anxiety Grows in Implementing Prop. 227
Schools: In less than two weeks, the initiative will take effect. Educators question district's hastily crafted anti-bilingual plan.
By LOUIS SAHAGUN, Times Staff Writer

Jose Delgadillo's mind was reeling with questions and concerns when he emerged Thursday from an emotional four-hour meeting with school officials that was supposed to help educators implement the state's new anti-bilingual initiative.
     "We're being thrown in . . . with no developed curriculum or real guidelines beyond 'do your best,' " said Delgadillo, who teaches at Belvedere Elementary School in East Los Angeles. "There are no real answers except dive in and do it. Am I ready? No. Will I do it? Yes."
     Delgadillo wasn't alone in his anxiety and frustration. Some 350 principals and teachers gathered in the Golden Ballroom of the Omni Hotel and bombarded Los Angeles Unified School District officials with pointed questions, but received few clear answers that they could take back to their classrooms.
     Nonetheless, theirs will be among the first schools in the state to translate Proposition 227's often ambiguous rules from the ballot to the classroom. The principals and teachers invited to the briefing were from 214 year-round schools that will begin their new terms in August, with 47 of those schools opening Aug. 3.
     Their biggest questions included whether curriculum will be ready in less than two weeks--it won't--and how much Spanish, Korean or other foreign language can be spoken in the classroom without violating the law. And because the district will offer programs ranging from English-only instruction to assistance in native languages by certified bilingual teachers, many wondered if teachers can get in trouble for advising a parent on which course to choose.
     At one point, L.A. Unified Supt. Ruben Zacarias stood up and delivered a warning: "Parents will certainly ask for advice. . . . What is not proper for any of us to do is go out there and sell one model over another. That is wrong. That is unprofessional."
     Then he added: "This whole thing could blow up in our face. The people who put this law on us will come after us in an even worse way."
     The urgent questions and general dissatisfaction with the answers revealed a palpable anxiety among educators as they race to replace 22-year-old bilingual education programs with an English-immersion plan hastily crafted by Zacarias and his staff.
     Answers were in short supply in part because the fine points of the law are still being debated and worked out by education officials and attorneys.
     Emergency regulations to implement Proposition 227 were filed Thursday with the secretary of state and took effect immediately. The regulations give school districts some flexibility in interpreting the vaguer parts of the initiative but do not give much guidance on the ingredients of an English immersion class that would pass legal muster under the new law.
     Other questions cannot be answered until parents respond to a questionnaire mailed today. The letter--written in English and Spanish--presents families with a range of choices, including their right to seek a waiver that would exempt children with special needs from English immersion classes.
     Until those letters are returned and sorted out, it is unknown how many children will be enrolled in one program or another, where teachers will be assigned, and how many new textbooks to buy.
     Anticipating a flood of questions from confused parents, the district is setting up "Prop. 227 hotlines."
     A major sticking point right now is defining how much Spanish or any other foreign language can be used in classroom instruction without violating the law, which was overwhelmingly approved by state voters in June. It requires that students with limited English skills spend one year in English immersion before transferring to mainstream English-only classes.
     Besides waivers and mainstream English classes, L.A. Unified's implementation plan includes two models of English immersion that promise to be controversial. One, called Model A, would allow students to be taught in English and assisted in their native language by student tutors. The second, Model B, would allow students to be assisted by certified bilingual teachers.
     The initiative defines English immersion classes as those in which "nearly all" instruction is in English. But that wording leaves much room for interpretation. Can a class be taught 70% of the time in English and still comply with the law?
     "Can we use native languages in the class in Model B? Yes. Can we use them half the day? No," explained Toni Marsnik, coordinator of the district's language acquisition curriculum development unit. "Look at it this way. Before, you had a full cup of Spanish to teach with. Now, you have one-fourth a cup."
     Dozens of principals and teachers in the audience responded to that explanation with blank and worried expressions.
     "When we teach something new and difficult, that's a good place to use native language," Marsnik added. "The daily calendar, however, is not new and difficult," and therefore should not be discussed in any language other than English, she said.
     Marsnik's simplistic explanations gradually set the room buzzing with urgent chatter.
     "That still doesn't clearly answer what is to be taught in English and what can be taught in Spanish," said Rita Flynn, principal at Norwood Street Elementary School in downtown Los Angeles. "Model B is going to be the trickiest option."
     Zacarias would not argue with that.
     "If you think of questions on your way home, or on your way back to school, please send them to us," he said. "We don't have all the answers. But we will provide the resources you need once you help us define what they are."
     Maxine Matlen, principal of Fair Avenue Elementary School in North Hollywood, didn't wait to openly criticize the letter going out to parents. Her problem: The letter does not adequately highlight a parent's right to file for a waiver.
     "I want to see that choice clearly on the front," she said, eliciting applause from several of her colleagues. "I'll cut one out and paste it on the front of the letter myself if I have to."
     Responding from a podium, Forrest Ross, director of the district's language acquisition branch, said, "If there is anyway to make it more better, we'll do that. But my recommendation would be not to cut and paste."
     Times staff writer Nick Anderson contributed to this story.