Los Angeles Times

Saturday, September 26, 1998

Parents Overwhelmingly Request Bilingual Classes
Hueneme: Teachers say they look forward to communicating with their limited-English speaking students after weeks of frustration.
By KATE FOLMAR, Times Staff Writer

When opponents of bilingual education in California started pushing for its demise, they probably didn't envision what is happening in the Hueneme school district.
     A month into the implementation of Proposition 227, the parents of nearly all of Hueneme's students who speak little or no English have said: No gracias.
     After 30 days of watching their children struggle with instruction conducted overwhelmingly in English, the parents of about 3,400 students in the Hueneme Elementary District have asked for a retooled bilingual program.
     The decision was a natural one, many Ventura County teachers argued Friday at a bilingual education conference; how else should parents respond to the vacant expressions, boredom and frustration of children trying to learn math, science, reading and more in a foreign tongue?
     "When we informed parents of their options," to seek a waiver from so-called sheltered English-immersion classes, "and they made an educated, informed choice for the future of their children, you could see the empowerment in their faces," said Jackie Villanueva, a third-grade teacher at Hueneme's Larsen Elementary.
     Overwhelmingly supported by voters, Proposition 227 was designed to dismantle bilingual education.
     Under the new state law, limited-English speakers are to receive one year of English-immersion instruction and then go directly into mainstream classes. The law allows parents, in special circumstances, to place their children into traditional bilingual programs after 30 days in the English classes.
     Supporters of the measure contended that only a small fraction of parents would seek such waivers--not, as in the Hueneme district, the parents of more than 99% of the limited-English speakers.
     In practice, Ventura County teachers say the law offers more flexibility than they had previously suspected. Although many still feel the law will do more harm than good, they say they are learning to live with it.
     Or learning to skirt it, if you ask Sheri Annis, spokeswoman for English for the Children, the Los Angeles-based group that backed the new law, which was promoted by Silicon Valley software entrepreneur Ron K. Unz.
     Annis contends that Ventura County educators are abusing the law, making bilingual education one entree on a menu of educational options. The waivers should be used only for those children who have specific educational difficulties that prevent them from learning English quickly, she said.
     "It seems like Ventura County has forgotten that Proposition 227 actually passed and the election is over," said Annis, who contends bilingual educators' conferences should be obsolete by now.
     Waivers should be granted to just 1% or 2% of limited-English students, she said.
     That formula doesn't work in the classroom, according to many participants at Friday's conference.
     Haycox Elementary's Irma Melgoza-Vasquez described the first 30 days of school as a useless prelude to real education. Almost all of her school's students are now learning in bilingual classes after parents signed waivers.
     "It was frustrating for the first weeks," she said. "The kids couldn't understand what was going on and you'd lose at least a quarter of the class. . . . Today was the first day I could teach reading in Spanish, and the kids were so excited as I passed out their books. They cheered, 'Yea!' "
     Kelly Ruff, who teaches second grade at Ocean View's Tierra Vista Elementary, said the first few weeks of her class, conducted in English, were necessarily heavy on art, music and physical education. Addressing the core subjects was almost impossible when students could not understand her.
     "At this age, I feel reading and writing are so important--I feel like I'm kind of depriving the kids," sighed Ruff, who anticipates that most of her parents will sign waivers allowing her to teach in both Spanish and English. "It's hard to face that we're going to have to do this year after year. I'd rather start with bilingual--and with real content--right away."
     Not all the teachers at the conference were vehemently opposed to Proposition 227, though.
     Anne Trejo, an English facilitator at Thousand Oaks' Walnut School, said students who were taught in their native tongue for too long fell behind too.
     "The more English a child hears, the more English he gets," said Trejo, who conducts special lessons for students who hail from Mexico, Vietnam, India and Russia.
     "The important thing is these kids learn English," she said. "It's a survival skill. The home language is very important too--the parents have to make sure they don't lose it."