Los Angeles Times
Sunday, September 6, 1998
No Habla Espanol
Spanish Is Banished From Classrooms as Teachers Implement English
By FRED ALVAREZ,
JENNIFER HAMM, Special to The Times
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
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
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
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
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
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
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."
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
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
"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
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
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
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
"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
The law has prompted little change for educators in Thousand Oaks, Simi
Valley and Oak Park, where few bilingual programs existed before Proposition
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
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
"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
"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
"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
Alvarez is a Times staff writer. Hamm is a Times Community News reporter.