Los Angeles Times

Sunday, September 6, 1998

No Habla Espanol
Spanish Is Banished From Classrooms as Teachers Implement English Immersion

In elementary school campuses across Ventura County, the post-bilingual era is ushering in a revolution in language and learning likely to grow more chaotic--and more contentious--as the school year shifts into high gear.
     As educators launch English-immersion programs to comply with a June initiative aimed at banning bilingual education, supporters of the measure are looking hard at whether local school districts are properly applying the new law and are threatening lawsuits against any that refuse.
     Already, proponents contend that the Oxnard Elementary and Ventura Unified school districts may have strayed from temporary guidelines established to implement the new law.
     Those guidelines require that nearly all instruction be in English, but allow parents, under certain circumstances, to place children in traditional bilingual classes after 30 days.
     Officials in both districts say there is no truth to those claims, but acknowledge that parents of limited-English speakers are being presented a range of educational options as allowed by the new law.
     In the meantime, teachers and administrators across the county are learning as they go, replacing native language instruction with English-immersion programs that some educators say remain largely ill-defined and untested.
Even on campuses where such programs have been up and running for a while, this new age of English dominance is producing plenty of uncertainty:
     * At Hathaway Elementary near Port Hueneme, first-grade teacher Teri Vasquez worries that her students will fall behind as they are forced to sink or swim with English. With the school year only two weeks old, she sticks mostly to rudimentary lessons, such as teaching the names of numbers and colors, knowing that changes will come as the instruction shifts and settles.
     * Starting her fifth year teaching third grade at Arroyo West School in Moorpark, Jennifer Fernandez wonders how her students will cope in the new English-only environment. To ensure she follows the law, she is spending her final days before school starts Wednesday replacing the dual-language bulletin boards and posters that peppered her classroom walls last year with new ones in English only.
     * In the year-round Oxnard Elementary School District, where school has been in session for about a month, the parents of more than 3,000 youngsters already have asked to have their children returned to traditional bilingual education classes at the end of 30 days.
     That includes all 20 first-graders in Leslie Nateras' class at Cesar Chavez School in Oxnard's La Colonia barrio.
     "The parents here aren't concerned so much about English; they know that will come," said Nateras, an Oxnard native and the product of local schools.
     "They're more concerned about whether their children know how to read, about whether they can do science and math," she said. "But right now, all of those core academics are on hold. It's kind of like we're moving in slow motion and that's a shame."

Overwhelming Approval
     Indeed, the statewide ballot measure--known as Proposition 227--drew fierce opposition from educators and others who argued that bilingual education was the best way to teach English and ensure that students kept pace in other core subjects.
     The argument, however, carried little weight with voters.
     Californians approved the June measure by an overwhelming margin, embracing the argument that 25 years of bilingual education had failed public school children and placed them at a competitive disadvantage.
     Sponsored by Silicon Valley computer software entrepreneur Ron K. Unz, the new law requires virtually all classroom instruction to be in English, but allows use of a child's native language for concept clarification whenever necessary.
     Traditional bilingual programs included English language training, but taught science, math and other topics in the native language.
     Under the state guidelines, limited-English speakers are to receive one year of English-immersion instruction, then go directly into mainstream classes.
     Those guidelines mostly apply to students 10 years and younger, since most older students already receive a fair amount of English-language instruction.
     On a larger scale, two Ventura County elementary districts--Oxnard and Hueneme--have asked the state Board of Education for one-year exemptions from the new law to allow time to create better English-immersion programs.
     Operating under emergency guidelines, districts across the county have scrambled over the summer to set up such programs.
     Some have created specialized 30-day teaching units to coincide with the first day parents can formally apply for waivers to return to bilingual classes, a move blasted by English-immersion proponents who say some districts are more concerned with preserving the old way of doing things than with complying with the new law.
     With so much open to interpretation, educators and others say they hope some of the more contentious issues get resolved next month when the state Board of Education releases permanent guidelines for putting the new law into practice.
     Ventura County schools "are living by the law and have worked real hard in this short period of time to put together lessons and units that are as meaningful as possible for these kids," said Cliff Rodrigues, a Ventura Unified school board member and director of bilingual education for the county schools office.
     "I think it's fair to say we didn't want this to pass," he said. "But as we move forward, I think everyone is saying we're going to do the best job we can for the kids."

Circumvention Suspected
     But it's the very question of what's best for schoolchildren that remains in dispute.
     Proponents of the measure contend that some districts across the state are doing everything they can to circumvent the law.
     Some have even gone as far as to hold back core academic instruction in English-immersion classes as a way of strong-arming parents into signing waivers returning their children to bilingual classes, said Sheri Annis, spokeswoman for English For The Children.
     The Los Angeles-based group helped spearhead the June ballot initiative and has vowed to monitor implementation of the measure.
     "Unfortunately, it has been proven to us that we cannot rely solely on school districts to comply with the law," Annis said. "Rather than trying to find creative ways of circumventing the law, we would hope that school districts and teachers will look to implement the most successful English immersion program possible."
     Annis said complaints already have been lodged against districts across the state, including a couple in Ventura County.
     In Ventura, Annis said, the parent of an English-speaking child at one elementary school was concerned about waivers handed out at a recent open house allowing parents to choose among three instructional programs: English immersion, bilingual education and a mainstream program without special assistance for English-language speakers.
     The teacher already had marked the second option for a bilingual education program, a choice that is supposed to be left up to parents.
     And from someone in the Oxnard district, Annis said, she received a complaint about the wording on a letter sent home to parents explaining the difference between the English immersion program and the traditional bilingual education program.
     In one case, the information says that English as a Second Language--a program that traditionally focuses on teaching language--will replace academic instruction. Annis said the law calls for "structured English immersion," a program designed to promote English acquisition while also teaching core academic content.
     Annis said she thinks such mistakes are deliberate, designed to push parents back into bilingual programs.
     "It just shows the resistance to change within the academic community," said Annis, noting that the initiative enables parents to sue educators who violate its provisions and fail to provide appropriate English-language instruction.
     "Unfortunately, it's probably going to take some legal response to implement the change," she said. "I think once principals and administrators realize they can be held personally responsible for violating the law they'll stop second-guessing the voters."

Creating Programs on Short Notice
     But across Ventura County, educators say nothing could be further from the truth.
     On short notice and with little guidance, they say, teachers and administrators have created immersion programs for thousands of youngsters who were in bilingual programs last year. And as those programs move forward, they say, they want to make parents aware of all their curriculum choices.
     "We see this as a parental choice issue and we see it as our obligation to try to inform parents about their choices in a fair and even-handed way," said Jennifer Robles, bilingual program coordinator for the Ventura Unified School District.
     In the situation mentioned by Annis, Robles said, waivers were handed to the parents of English-speaking students in an upper-grade classroom where some Spanish was going to be taught as a second language.
     In an abundance of caution and to ensure compliance with the law, she said, the teacher had parents sign waivers to allow such bilingual instruction. While parents should have been allowed to check that option themselves, Robles said the teacher already had asked their approval and checked the box to reflect their preference.
     Robles said all teachers, especially those who deal with limited-English-speaking children, have been told repeatedly to explain all options to parents while making it clear they have the final say.
     So confident are Ventura officials in the English-immersion program they have created that they took the unusual step Friday of inviting Annis to the district to have a look around.
     "I can honestly say we're not trying to push any direction," Robles said. "We're honestly giving it a fair trial so that parents can make an informed choice. We're trying to do the right thing."
     Educators in the Oxnard elementary district, where 7,500 of the 15,000 students are classified as having limited English proficiency, say they are giving English immersion a similar test run.
     Despite the wording on some information letters, officials said, the district's program follows state guidelines, delivering core academic instruction primarily in English. And they say there has been no effort to encourage parents to shift their children back to bilingual classes.
     Nevertheless, the parents of more than 3,000 children have chosen to do exactly that. Although the school board can't approve those waivers until the initial 30-day period is over, district officials have said they will grant those requests unless there is good reason not to.
     "We're asking parents to be active consumers in their children's education," said Connie Sharp, who oversees curriculum and instruction for the district. "I think that's essential."
     That's what Jose Martin did.
     The 31-year-old Oxnard truck driver stood outside his daughter's first-grade classroom at Cesar Chavez Elementary, watching students struggle to learn in the new English-only environment. In the end, he decided to ask that she be returned to a bilingual classroom.
     He was not alone. Of the 220 students in first through third grades in two tracks at the school, the parents of all but 10 have petitioned for their children to return to native-language instruction.
     "The majority of the parents don't speak English and they're not even able to help their children with their homework," said Martin, picking up his 6-year-old daughter, Yanely, from school last week. "I don't know why they had to make these changes. Our children need to learn in a language they understand."

Few Changes in East County
     Some districts have had to make more changes than others.
The law has prompted little change for educators in Thousand Oaks, Simi Valley and Oak Park, where few bilingual programs existed before Proposition 227.
     In Simi Valley, where both bilingual and immersion programs had been available, administrators have gone back to an immersion-only curriculum for their 1,500 limited English speakers.
     And in Thousand Oaks, officials already relied exclusively on a structured immersion program to teach the nearly 1,500 limited-English speaking students in the Conejo Valley district.
     In the east county, the Moorpark Unified district has had the most work to do.
     Teachers there spent their final days of summer trying to figure out how the new law would affect them in the classroom. A six-page question and answer handout distributed to every teacher in the district explained some of the basics.
     One of the first things third-grade teacher Fernandez noticed was that her classroom displays would have to be solely in English.
     So she spent a recent morning at Arroyo West School in Moorpark making changes to comply with the new law. A poster, once explaining in English and Spanish what to do when Fernandez puts her hand in the air, became an English-only display.
     Last year's version of the poster called "Give Me Five" held the dual message: "Eyes on the speaker" and "Mirando al que habla." The new version explains the rule only in English, although Fernandez drew a pair of eyes to help students understand.
     "I'm trying to figure out ways to make it more visual," she said.
Classroom preparation was about the same for Jenny Peters-Brooks, another third-grade teacher. She cut off and taped over the Spanish portions of posters in her class.
     Both teachers said the district has provided guidance on what they can and can't say in class, but that there are still plenty of unanswered questions.
     "We're just figuring it out," Peters-Brooks said. "We're trying to follow the law the best we can."

Simple Lessons in English Only
     Across the county at Hathaway Elementary in the Hueneme district, Vasquez said she is trying to do the same thing in her first-grade class.
     For the first time in her 14-year career, not a single word on a classroom poster or bulletin board is in Spanish. And for now, at least during the first 30 days of English immersion, she is sticking to simple instruction such as teaching the names of colors and numbers.
     "I want to teach them things, but I can't," said Vasquez, adding that most of her students don't have enough English skills to push any further right now. "I'm not teaching any reading. I can't teach letters, I can't teach sounds. And by the time I can teach it, two months of the school year will have been wasted."
     Still, she presses on. She sings songs in English and her youngsters follow along. She introduces numbers and the concept of writing between the lines, and that too is done in English.
     No matter what language is spoken, some things never change. Silly songs about shoulders and toes still send youngsters into giggling fits. And recess is still the best time of the day. And in Vasquez's class, the way to go to recess is to be able to count the number of times she claps her hands.
     Most students keep pace and shout the number in English. Five-year-old Bernardo Silva, however, listens carefully and shouts, "cinco."
     "Very good, Bernardo," Vasquez says, "but how many is that in English?"
He thinks a bit and then shouts, "five." He's out the door and on the playground before the word stops echoing in the classroom.
     Vasquez concedes that Proposition 227 is not the worst thing ever to happen to education. The kids who fall behind will be able to catch up, she said, although they probably will have to sacrifice lessons in art or music to do so.      And parents could simply choose to shift their youngsters back to bilingual classes, meaning she could end up teaching just as she did last year.
     "Hopefully parents will do what's best for the kids," she said. "That's all any of us are trying to do."
Alvarez is a Times staff writer. Hamm is a Times Community News reporter.