Los Angeles Times

Saturday, August 1, 1998

State Board Gets Crash Course on Implementing Prop. 227
Education: Group gives advice on creating English immersion programs to replace bilingual classes, as courts turn back last-minute challenges.

SACRAMENTO--Up and down the state, public school officials have clamored for answers to a question posed by the passage of Proposition 227: If not bilingual education, then what?
     Although the initiative approved by voters in June was a loud statement against teaching children in two languages, the program it required instead--"structured English immersion"--remains suspect to many California educators.
     So on Friday a group of principals, teachers and researchers came here to give the State Board of Education some real-world tips on how to build an "immersion" program. Most drew on the premise that good teaching of basic skills works just as well for students with limited English abilities as for those who grew up with the language.
     All agreed on one thing: Time is short. A federal appeals court Friday refused to put the initiative on hold statewide, and another judge turned down an eleventh-hour effort by civil rights groups to delay its implementation in Los Angeles.
     The ruling by U.S. District Judge Lourdes Gillespie Baird means that on Monday, 47 campuses in Los Angeles Unified School District will lead the first wave of conversion from bilingual teaching as the initiative begins to take effect around the state.
     Yet it remains unclear exactly how that transition will play out in the classroom as school districts grapple with how much they will be allowed to help their students using Spanish, Korean, Cantonese or dozens of other languages.
     "Teachers must be given a curriculum to follow soon," Patrice Abarca, a teacher at Heliotrope Elementary School in Maywood, told the state board. "Please, don't make thousands of teachers develop their own individual English language development program."
     By Friday afternoon, opponents of the initiative had nearly exhausted their legal efforts to halt its implementation.
     In the Los Angeles case, a 28-page order by Baird found that the school district's plan was not "a dramatic 'wholesale' change" from current teaching practice, as the lawsuit alleged. Baird said the revised plan relied on teaching methods that were well-established.
     The judge criticized the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund and others who allege that upheaval in Los Angeles Unified's programs will cause students irreparable damage. "You're not giving teachers the credit they're due," Baird said.
     Attorneys for MALDEF said after the hearing that they will review Baird's decision before charting a new strategy, but that they will not let the matter rest.
     In a separate case, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals turned down a bid to block the initiative statewide. The two-judge appellate panel declined to issue an emergency restraining order after two federal judges had ruled that the will of the voters should take precedence over the claims of potential harm to minority students. The initiative passed by a 61-39 majority June 2.
     Though the appeal is pending in the statewide case, attorneys said the earliest a hearing could be scheduled is October, by which time schools across the state should have launched English immersion programs.
     Foes of Proposition 227 nevertheless promised to continue their campaign to preserve bilingual programs by encouraging parents and teachers to resist all-English instruction.
     On Friday, however, the state board made their task more difficult. It voted unanimously to tighten a loophole in new state regulations that supporters of Proposition 227 had feared would give educators too much freedom to preserve bilingual classes.
     Previously, the board had ruled that any parent could get their child excepted from the initiative's terms unless educators had "substantial evidence" that the request was not in the student's interest. But the board changed the wording to give school officials more discretion, striking the requirement that there be "substantial evidence" before a waiver request is denied.
     That move came after the board heard from a panel of educators and researchers largely in favor of teaching students mostly in English.
     In addition to Abarca, the Los Angeles teacher, there were two Canadian professors, an English-as-a-second-language teacher and an administrator from Sacramento County, and two elementary school principals from Inglewood, Nancy Ichinaga and Marjorie Thompson. Only Abarca voiced support for bilingual education.
     The group's message:
     * Teach students the basics, especially phonics, from the beginning. All of the panelists stressed the importance of ensuring that students can match sounds to letters and master the formation of syllables. "This is one of the fundamental skills," said Linda Siegel, a professor at the University of British Columbia.
     * Make it interesting. Drilling is often necessary, the panelists said, but students will tire of it unless they have something interesting to read. "It's like hospital food--it's got all the right stuff, but no one's going to ask for more," said Dale Willows, a professor at the University of Toronto.
     * Expect high performance from everyone. Don't neglect spelling, grammar and punctuation.
     * Give extra time to students who need it. Thompson said her school, Kelso Elementary, gives up to 70 minutes a day extra to kindergartners and schedules lessons during school breaks just to make sure limited-English students don't fall behind.
     All the proposals seemed to reflect common sense. Nonetheless, California has for years been wrestling with how to teach the swelling ranks of students with limited English proficiency. Overall, the state has had a dismal record with a variety of approaches. Barely 7% of all limited-English students reach fluency each year.
     In addition to the expert panel, state officials also have adopted another time-honored technique for finessing a troublesome issue: the blue-ribbon task force.
     State Supt. of Public Instruction Delaine Eastin announced Thursday that Supts. Vera Vignes of the Pasadena Unified School District and Roberto Moreno of the Calexico Unified School District will head a group of teachers, administrators, parents, researchers and others to investigate what makes a good English immersion program. The group will convene in September.