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 in English.
     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 a point.
     "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 writing assignments.
     "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 eat?"
     Twenty voices yelled in unison, "They eat worms!'
     "Is that all they eat?" Duran asked.
     "Nooooo! Some birds eat small animals," they said.
     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," Barajas said.
     "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 instruction.
     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 campers."