Los Angeles Times

Tuesday, August 4, 1998

With Gestures, but Not Chaos, Prop. 227 Begins
Education: L.A. teachers improvise on first day of English-only instruction, and students seem to catch on.

The post-bilingual age began in Los Angeles schools Monday with uncertainty, improvisation and a good many hand gestures--but seemingly none of the chaos predicted by apprehensive educators.
     To be sure, there were glazed looks of incomprehension and worry in some classrooms as teachers and students at 47 year-round elementary schools started a new semester, making them among the first in the state to return to class under Proposition 227, the June initiative that essentially eliminated bilingual education in California's public schools.
     But the morning went surprisingly smoothly at seven schools visited by Times reporters. There was no flood of requests for waivers to dodge the English-immersion instruction that is now the state mandate. There was no defiant flouting of the initiative.
     Instead, teachers, parents and students all seemed in a mood to try to do what they are now expected to do, however difficult--or even distasteful--it might be for them. And many of the youngsters had little difficulty following their teachers' English.
     At Van Nuys Elementary, one could hear only a sprinkling of Spanish among the students who returned Monday, as the language all but disappeared from many classrooms. Youngsters who once spent their days reading and writing Spanish were instead reciting the alphabet and greeting one another in English.
     Instructors who had spent years teaching in Spanish reminded themselves to speak English, even as some said they preferred the bilingual approach.
     The majority of Van Nuys classes offered virtually no help in Spanish except for bilingual aides who gave occasional tips to students. Teachers tried hard to make their lessons clear by using gestures--one pointed to the floor when she asked the class to sit down. The teachers spoke slowly and clearly and frequently repeated words for the benefit of their students.
     When second-grade teacher Beth Shwarz told her pupils to write their names at the bottom of their personal journals, she repeated the last two words of her instructions in slow motion: "T-H-E B-O-T-T-O-M."
     At one point, she emphasized, "Please, if you have questions, ask me," adding in Spanish, "Por favor, si tienen preguntas, preguntenme."

     No Textbooks or Lesson Plans
     While they improvised their way through the first morning, many teachers wondered how they would fare in the coming days without a formal lesson plan for teaching English--it won't be ready for three more weeks--or the necessary English-language textbooks, which won't even be ordered for another month.
     "I said to my family that I can get through the first day and probably the next few days," said first-grade teacher Rosario Martin at Christopher Dena Elementary in East Los Angeles. "My greatest concern is the curriculum. As we see it right now there's no real curriculum."
     Across the hall, Eleanor Ciriza said some of her second-graders appeared worried about the class the moment they stepped through the door.
     "For the kids especially, it's frightening," she said. "I had two this morning who cried. They're not really sure what this whole law means and they feel a little threatened."
     At San Pedro Street Elementary in the downtown garment district, Beatrize Estrada, a brand new teacher in her first day on the job, issued a hard rule in Spanish to her combination second- and third- grade class: "If you don't understand what I'm saying, please raise two fingers over your head. Then I will explain to you in Spanish."
     After telling the students in English that they would be allowed to swim in the school's pool after lunch each day if they had written parental permission, she inquired in Spanish, "How many did not understand what I just said?"
     Nine of the 14 children raised their fingers high, while the others wiggled with joy at the prospect of taking a daily dip in the pool.
     The 47-year-old former school secretary was not taken aback. "When I came to this country in 1960 from Jalisco, Mexico, there was no bilingual education," she recalled. "So I know what it's like to be thrown into an L.A. public school without English skills."
     With more than 312,000 students classified as having limited English skills--nearly a quarter of the 1.4 million such students statewide--the Los Angeles Unified School District will play a pivotal rule in determining whether Proposition 227's mandate for English instruction succeeds or fails.
     The district has developed four instruction options that parents of limited-English students can chose from: Immerse the pupils in English; instruct them almost entirely in English with classroom aides and fellow students offering native-language help (known as Model A); teach them almost entirely in English with a certified bilingual education teacher in class to help (known as Model B); apply for a waiver to place the child in a traditional bilingual program.
     Parents will not have to pick a method for another month. In the meantime, many schools seemed to be following the middle two options, teaching students primarily in English but also offering native language help.
     As Martin was laying out the rules of her class, for instance, she said to her students, "Tomamos turnos. You will have a turn."
     At another point, she said "Share--Do you know what that means? En espanol, decimos compartir."
     Backers of Proposition 227 let its first day of enforcement pass with little fanfare, though businessman Ron K. Unz, the oft-quoted sponsor of the initiative, announced a program to help monitor its implementation. The "English for the Children Project," will take calls from whistle-blowers on a toll-free number.
     Unz said the calls would be logged to help determine which schools or districts should be targeted with lawsuits for noncompliance.

     Few Requests for Waivers
     The post-bilingual era began in Los Angeles and a few other districts scattered around the state despite the best efforts of opponents, who went to court to block implementation of the initiative and in some cases have vowed to defy it. As late as Friday, two federal courts ruling in separate lawsuits filed by civil rights groups gave the initiative a green light.
     Officials of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, which vehemently fought Proposition 227, said last month that they would urge as many parents as possible to apply for waivers to thwart the initiative.
     It is too soon to tell if such waiver requests will come pouring in, but there was no great demand Monday. Only a handful of parents asked about them at back-to-school meetings with administrators at San Pedro Street Elementary. Some parents at the sessions did express fear, though, that their children would somehow forget how to speak Spanish. A few wanted assurances that some Spanish would be used in the classroom.
     At Monte Vista Elementary in Highland Park, Sabina Cortez was concerned that she would not be able to help her child on homework that was only in English. Like several other parents, she was leaning toward putting her child in the Model B program, with limited Spanish support.
     But Veronica Estrada, who said she speaks Spanish perfectly, was firm about choosing the all-English model. "I don't speak Spanish at home," she stressed.
     Her older daughters are now in high school and are taking Spanish as a second language. That suits her, she said.
     One of the most startling contrasts with traditional bilingual classes Monday was the near total absence of Spanish words in the teaching materials and other signs posted around the classrooms. In classes of the past, every message was written in Spanish and English.
     At Hobart Boulevard Elementary in Koreatown, third-grade instructor Anita Solomon, a certified bilingual teacher, had put up a calendar and cards identifying objects from the wall to the doorknob. The labels were all in English.
     "I was astounded how many of them read my classroom rules," Solomon said. "They pick up a lot from listening."
     She was concerned only about one boy who had just arrived from Tijuana and seemed intimidated.
     "There was no way I was going to talk to him in English," said Solomon, who said she put her arm around the boy in the morning and assured him she spoke Spanish and would help him.
     But by the afternoon, she said, the boy was following instructions in English, mimicking others in the class.
     Predictions of upheaval in classrooms failed to materialize on Monday precisely because of the role that English played under the school district's old bilingual programs, teachers said.
     "I think the public's perception was that no English was being taught in bilingual programs but that's not so," said Heather Hagen-Smith, as her first-graders at Canoga Park Elementary School sang songs about shoes and buses in English to build their vocabulary.
     Still, other teachers expressed concerns about whether students with limited English abilities will be able to adequately develop learning skills in English--and whether they will get the help they need at home.
     "It's a big concern. I can't tell how it's going to go," said Canoga Park kindergarten teacher Christina Cuevas. "The kids have to be taught in English, regardless of what I think."
     Times staff writer Tina Nguyen and Times community news reporter Jason Takenouchi also contributed to this story.
     This story was reported by Times staff writers Nick Anderson, Duke Helfand, Louis Sahagun and Doug Smith, and written by Bettina Boxall.