Los Angeles Times
Wednesday, January 13, 1999
L.A. Students Take to English Immersion
By LOUIS SAHAGUN, Times Staff Writer
At elementary schools scattered across Los Angeles, teachers are delivering
promising reports that their students are learning English more quickly
than anticipated six months after the implementation of the anti-bilingual
education law, Proposition 227.
"I honestly didn't expect to see them
achieve as well as they are doing," said Jose Posada, bilingual education
coordinator at Los Angeles Elementary School in Koreatown.
"Many of us who believed in the bilingual
education program were scared about the unknowns," he said. "Now
we're saying, 'Well, maybe it's not so bad. Maybe it's time we start talking
about the positives.' "
In interviews at 13 Los Angeles Unified School
District campuses with large immigrant populations, primary grade teachers
said their students are absorbing verbal English at a surprising pace.
Some children are even taking the next step and learning to read and write
Still, many of these teachers and other educators
question whether most of the youngsters have acquired the language skills
necessary to comprehend math, reading or history lessons in English. Some
suggest that students are imitating, or parroting, their English-speaking
teachers rather than thinking in the language.
Many worry that the children are falling
behind in their studies as they struggle with a new language and that they
will not be ready to enter mainstream English classes within one year,
as Proposition 227 calls for.
The depth of their English skills will become
clearer after they take the Stanford 9 standardized tests in the spring.
The test results, coupled with new state
guidelines for rating English language development, will help schools determine
at year's end which students should be placed in mainstream classes and
which should remain in English immersion another year. The second-year
option is allowed by Proposition 227.
In the meantime, educators are expressing
cautious optimism that if students can say it, they get it.
"We're off to a good start," said
Maria Ochoa, district administrator for language acquisition. "Things
are running smoothly. By the end of the year we'll have a better grasp
of how well these students are doing."
Kris Gutierrez, associate professor of education
at UCLA and a specialist in culture and learning in urban schools, agreed--to
"Imitation can be one of the first stages
of learning, if it is part of a larger strategy," she said. "But
the development of oral language skills doesn't tell us much about comprehension."
Gutierrez said she also has heard positive
reports from teachers, but still harbors some concerns.
"I wish [the teachers] were saying,
'Juan is reading four books he wasn't reading before,' or that their kids
were taking more books home," she said. "If they were really
getting turned on by English, they'd be checking out books and at least
pretending to read them."
Many teachers lament having to water down
core subjects such as science and social studies for students who are just
beginning to read and write in English. On the other hand, they are relieved
that youngsters who spoke little or no English only months ago are generally
at ease, even enthusiastic about their post-Proposition 227 reading and
"I expected that their self-esteem would
be affected, and that they would feel inhibited, give up easily,"
said Yomy Duran, a second-grade teacher at Dena Elementary School southeast
of downtown. "Instead, they are excited, motivated."
"One-fourth of my class can write. Yes,
there are grammatical errors, but, hey, you read it," she added. "My
biggest fear is whether I'm doing enough for them. Can I do more? But the
fear of them standing still academically is gone."
Take her students' responses to a recent
question of the day: "What do birds eat?"
Twenty hands shot up. "They eat worms,"
one youngster said in English. "Some birds eat other small animals,"
added a classmate.
Later, during a review of the lesson, which
included repetitive reading from a book about birds reinforced with simple
sentences written on the blackboard, Duran again asked, "What do birds
Twenty voices yelled in unison, "They
"Is that all they eat?" Duran asked.
"Nooooo! Some birds eat small animals,"
Duran was delighted that they understood
her question and answered properly. But nagging at her was the fact that
none of them had used phrases such as "little animals" or "tiny
animals" instead of the "small animals" she had written
on the blackboard. She worried that the students were just mimicking her.
"The big question is whether they can
transfer the information in another situation," she said.
A few miles away, at First Street Elementary
School, Irma Rodriguez cooed that her daughters, a kindergartner and a
third-grader, "are learning to speak, which is what I always wanted.
We're all happy."
On the first day at school after a three-week
break, her daughter's kindergarten teachers, Sofia DeLatorre and Maria
Barajas, also were upbeat. But then, too, they regretted having to teach
their English learners at a slower pace than they would have liked.
"They are picking up more English, but
it's social English--I still have to present new concepts in Spanish,"
"No matter how hard I try, we won't
have as many readers in our class as we did last year, when we were all
speaking only in their primary language," she said.
Until this year, most of First Street School's
800 students learned to read and write in Spanish in kindergarten through
third grade, with English phased in later. Since Proposition 227 was implemented
last summer, children with limited English skills have been placed in yearlong
English immersion programs. In Los Angeles Unified, as in many other school
districts, the children continue to receive varying amounts of assistance
in their primary language.
At the start of the school year, First Street
Principal Judy Leff, a firm supporter of bilingual education, led a series
of parent meetings aimed at ensuring that residents understood their options,
including their right to seek a waiver to continue traditional bilingual
By the time classes began in September, Leff
said, fewer than 20 waivers had been requested. Instead, she said, the
vast majority of parents chose to enroll their children in a structured
English immersion program.
Officials at Charles W. Barrett Elementary
School in South-Central Los Angeles also report encouraging progress.
"We still don't have the total picture.
But in my opinion, our students are learning academic English faster than
anticipated," said bilingual education coordinator Jesus Romero.
"How deep is the progress? It may take
years to know for sure," he said.
Sylvia Harris, a first-grade teacher at Martin
Luther King Jr. Elementary School in South-Central, asks the same question.
"The first day of class, their eyes
were wide open with fear, and I kept thinking to myself, 'We'll get through
this thing together,' " she recalled. "Now, I still have concerns.
But the kids are doing very well. Parents are relaxed. We're all very happy