Los Angeles Times
Sunday, April 12, 1998
Gulf of California: Prop. 227 Splits Teachers
Those on the Front Lines Are as Divided Over Bilingual Education
as the Public.
By DOUG SMITH,
DUKE HELFAND, Times Education
The principal of Aldama Elementary School in Northeast Los Angeles is
a crisply dressed Latina who learned English in a grade school where it
was the only language teachers spoke.
Now, Martha Trevino Powell has no patience
with people who say children need nurturing in their native tongue.
"Everybody says, 'I was damaged, my
self-esteem was ruined because they forced me to speak English,' "
But Powell has no regrets. "I speak English and Spanish. I'm grateful."
At Florence Avenue School in South-Central,
bilingual coordinator Christine Ferreira is a native English speaker who
learned Spanish living abroad and has enrolled her son in a program where
his lessons are in Spanish so he will be bilingual too.
But she wouldn't push English immersion on
the predominantly Spanish-speaking children at Florence. "I'm there
to support [my son] with the Spanish," she said. "Many of our
Spanish-speaking parents here can't do that with their kids. Very few speak
Both educators have the same goal: teaching
English as quickly as possible to the children in their charge. But one
will vote for Proposition 227, the June ballot measure that would virtually
eliminate native language instruction for the state's 1.4 million schoolchildren
who speak little or no English. The other will vote against it.
The wide gulf between them is hardly uncommon
among educators. On the volatile subject of bilingual education, teachers
and school administrators are just as divided as the population and possibly
even more passionate.
In a referendum conducted by the Los Angeles
teachers union, teachers narrowly supported bilingual education, voting
52% to 48% against the initiative sponsored by Silicon Valley businessman
Though all share the goal of teaching children
to read and write, teachers also draw their opinions from deeply personal
experience. Some, like Powell and Ferreira, are influenced by their own
upbringing. Others see inequities in pay and employee rights. And many
have formed conclusions by witnessing success or failure in the classroom.
At Dearborn Elementary School in Northridge,
English is the rule and teachers voted 19-2 in the referendum in favor
of the Unz initiative.
Most Dearborn teachers believe that the earlier
children immerse themselves in English, the sooner they learn it--and the
faster they make the transition into mainstream instruction.
"The primary [foreign] language is a
crutch," said fifth-grade teacher Carol Promen. In English-only classes,
she said, "they learn English because they have to. The younger they
are, the more they absorb."
At Dearborn, where only 18% of the students
are considered to have limited English ability, newcomers are surrounded
by English in classrooms and on the playground. Native English speakers
serve as role models, teachers say.
Things couldn't be more different only a
few miles away at San Fernando Elementary, where three-fourths of the students
are Spanish-speaking and 28 of 47 teachers hold bilingual credentials.
They voted 39-6 against the Unz initiative in the United Teachers-Los Angeles
referendum, and they say their classroom experiences bear out the perils
of English immersion and the merits of bilingual education.
Carol Lyman, who teaches fourth and fifth
grades, said she can easily spot the students coming from the bilingual
program and those who were removed and placed in English-only classes at
their parents' request.
"The kids who were pulled [from bilingual
education] are behind," she said. "They have a hard time making
sense grammatically. Their spelling is bad. I don't think they got a grasp
of their native language. They were thrown into something they weren't
English becomes a barrier rather than a facilitator
to learning, such teachers say.
"Learning is not only learning the English
language," said kindergarten teacher Rosalinda Cardenas, president
of the San Fernando Valley chapter of the California Assn. of Bilingual
Education. "It's about making connections, creating meaning. Are we
producing students who will do lower-level thinking? Or are we giving them
the opportunity to build higher-order skills at an early age, which leads
to more confident, more productive learners and citizens?"
In these Northridge and San Fernando examples,
the views of educators reflect the communities they serve. But attitudes
on bilingual education do not always fit so neatly into a milieu.
Florence and Graham, which is another elementary school less than two miles
away and also in a predominantly Latino portion of South-Central Los Angeles,
have developed dramatically different cultures.
More than two-thirds of Florence's 60 teachers
speak Spanish, a consequence of Principal Javier Miranda's aggressive recruiting.
Florence teachers voted 29-4 against the Unz initiative.
Only a fourth of Graham's teaching staff
is credentialed to teach bilingual education, a ratio that reflects the
district's shortage of bilingual teachers. The school's faculty voted 34-12
for Proposition 227, and many teachers criticize the way bilingual education
works in their school.
Many Graham bilingual classes are taught
by teachers who don't speak Spanish. They develop the lesson plans, which
are then taught by Spanish-speaking aides.
"When I was in that situation, I started
to panic," said teacher Phoung Amiel. "I thought I was the teacher."
Amiel, a Vietnamese immigrant, learned English
by immersion when she was 10. "I firmly believe that if you want your
kids to learn Spanish, that is the responsibility of the home," she
said. "That should not be the main focus [in school], because we're
Some of her colleagues are more conflicted.
"I would like to see us have the resources we need," said teacher
Kim Nishimoto, who added that she would support bilingual education if
it were properly staffed. "As it is, all it does is foster illiteracy
in the inner city. It makes the kids look stupid, which they're not, and
it makes us look stupid, which we're not." The perks that bilingual
teachers receive, including a $5,000 annual stipend and the right to bump
teachers who don't speak Spanish, rankle some of their colleagues. The
most cynical said that those who oppose the Unz initiative are merely thinking
of their wallets.
Nishimoto said the district should pay experienced
teachers to learn Spanish in university level courses, rather than give
preference to inexperienced applicants who speak Spanish.
Debby Eckstein, a strong advocate of Proposition
227, sees some use for Spanish in class. "Spanish in language arts
and everything else in English," she said.
But Eckstein fears that she could lose her
summer vacation track to a less senior teacher because she is not a bilingual
teacher. Eckstein believes that all bilingual teachers should be credentialed,
both for the children's sake and her own.
At Florence, teachers and administrators
are united in their commitment to bilingual education, and they see positive
One recent day, second-grade teacher Claudia Saldana, in her second year,
was reviewing the elements of a story: personajes, escenario, problemas,
Veteran teacher Rosamaria Rodriguez, who
will teach the children next year in her third-grade class, is confident
they will be ready for the intricacies of long and short vowels and English
prefixes and suffixes once they pass a test of Spanish proficiency. "When
they come to me from second grade, I can prepare them to pass the test,"
Rodriguez said. "Their primary language literacy is so strong we can
begin to transition."
Ferreira credits the school's supportive
atmosphere for the fact that, among upper-grade Spanish speakers, students
from the bilingual classes have scored nearly twice as high on standardized
English reading tests as students from the English-only classes.
"We don't have that 'It was good enough for Mom, it should be good
enough for them' attitude," she said.
Yet feelings about bilingual education run
so deep that even a school where staff work in collegial harmony can erupt
in fervid argument.
It happened recently at Aldama, whose teachers
voted 13-13 on the union referendum, despite Principal Powell's certainty
that she had assembled a staff of strong English-immersion believers.
When the debate broke out, fifth-grade teacher
Fred Brannan was practically the only one to take her side, citing everything
from inequitable teacher pay to the rapid assimilation of 35 million European
immigrants to the United States earlier in this century.
"You're drawing a parallel with a sociology
that doesn't exist today," fourth-grade teacher Jose Velazquez replied.
"We're in a crisis," Brannan responded.
"If our kids can't read and can't write, why pound a cultural lesson
For Powell, to watch the debate tilt against
her own view was a surprise, but also an affirmation.
"I don't hire any 'Yes, ma'am' teachers,"
she said proudly.