Los Angeles Times

Wednesday, May 6, 1998

District Fuels Debate on Bilingual Education
Schools: Adoption of English-only teaching in Orange gives ammo to both sides in Prop. 227 battle.
By NICK ANDERSON, Times Staff Writer

ORANGE--A year ago, the school board in this city known for political conservatism took a radical step many Californians seem inclined to follow next month: It abandoned bilingual education.
     Now, all schoolchildren in the Orange Unified School District are immersed in English all day long, no matter what their language abilities. Teachers who once answered to maestra now more often than not are called simply "teacher." Youngsters with limited English skills, who once spent as much as several hours each day learning en espanol, now get scant help in their home language and are encouraged--pushed, some say--to speak English at every turn.
     The story of that transition offers some clues to the challenge that many California schools would confront if voters approve Proposition 227 on June 2. The statewide ballot initiative, the first of its kind in the nation, would end most bilingual education programs in California by placing strict limits on the use of languages other than English in the classroom.
     Such a switch would require overhauling lesson plans, retraining teachers, shuffling students from one classroom to another, ordering new textbooks and, perhaps, spending substantial sums of money. What's more, some teachers vow to resist any changes.
     Interviews with parents and educators, classroom visits and a review of initial academic results reveal a school district that has labored mightily to teach children English since the program took effect in September. But there is fuel here for both sides of the initiative campaign, which has drawn notice from Democratic and Republican officials nationwide, including President Clinton, who last week denounced it.
     School administrators say that students with limited English skills thrive under the new English immersion regimen. They cite preliminary test scores showing that many students have progressed in spoken English.
     Critics say those results are far from convincing.
     For Robert French, superintendent of this district of 29,000 students, the proof lies in simple spot checks of whether children from Spanish-speaking homes can chat with him in English. In the old bilingual classrooms, French said, most students were mute without Spanish.
     "The kids would look at me with a blank face," said French, who speaks virtually no Spanish. "But I found out in early October that I could carry on conversations in English with kindergartners and first-graders. This is what it's all about."
     That sounds like an endorsement of the "English for Children" initiative, sponsored by Silicon Valley businessman Ron K. Unz and Orange County schoolteacher Gloria Matta Tuchman. Not quite. French, an unabashed fan of English-only education, opposes Proposition 227.
     "The way it's written, I'm against it," French said. "It's one size fits all, and you've got to do it the Unz way or no way."
     The district encountered plenty of bumps during the changeover to English immersion, which was authorized by the state last year after the district sought a rare exemption from bilingual education rules. Many bilingual teachers, figuring that their skills would be more valuable elsewhere, left the district.
     The first months were especially trying. Some Spanish-speaking students fretted over whether they would understand their homework; some Spanish-speaking parents despaired that they could not help. Teachers improvised solutions, seeking to cope with the sort of upheaval bound to happen elsewhere if Proposition 227 takes effect.
     "It was all new, all at once, at the beginning of the year," said Julie McNealy, a teacher at West Orange Elementary School. "It has been a tremendous year of change and stress on everyone."
     No other California school district in recent times has made such a complete, sudden reversal on bilingual education, which makes the district's experience a close, but imperfect, analogy to the future that Proposition 227 would create. Last year, Orange Unified taught nearly 1,500 limited-English elementary school students mostly or partly in their native language.
     The district also mirrors California's school demographics: one-quarter of its students have limited English skills, and four out of five of them speak Spanish as their first language.
     With his initiative ahead in opinion polls, Unz believes that educators should start planning for changes similar to the ones that Orange Unified has made. Those that don't, he said, are "sticking their heads in the sand."
     In a nonbinding referendum last year, an overwhelming majority of school district voters backed the school board's decision. The results were expected. Voters in this central Orange County city tend to the right of center, and bilingual education is a favorite target of political conservatives.
     But support can be heard nowadays in some surprising quarters. Norma Perez, a Spanish-speaking mother of three, whose oldest son was in a bilingual program, said: "It's better for them to learn in English from the beginning. That's how they'll feel at home in society."
     The initiative would take effect 60 days after passage, though lawsuits probably would immediately be filed to block it. But there too, Orange Unified offers some guidance. Bilingual education advocates filed a lawsuit last year. They failed to stop the switch; federal and state judges ruled that the district was not required to provide native language instruction.
     The lead plaintiff in that case, a mother of two named Maria Quiroz, said English immersion robs students of knowledge in other subjects by making lessons and homework much more difficult to understand.
     "They say their goal is for students to learn English. Well, none of the parents are against that," Quiroz, who is from Mexico, said in her native Spanish. "But to me, that's not the only thing. The children need to learn mathematics, geography and history too." Quiroz believes that those subjects can best be taught in the native language.

Truncated Form of Bilingual Education
     In Maribelle Paul's first-grade class at West Orange Elementary School, English immersion does not mean only English.
     One morning last week, as Paul read a book on architecture to a dozen students in clear but rapid English, her teaching assistant, Nivea Feld, delved into mathematics with six students, using Spanish and somewhat slower English.      Doling out a pile of red straws to each student, for a lesson on 10s and 1s, Feld asks, in two languages: "How many do you have here?--Cuantos tienes aqui?"
     "10," answers a boy named Anthony. A moment later, another, named Cesar, calls out, "I did it, teacher!" and Feld responds, "Good, excellent."
     For perhaps an hour each day, these students get a severely truncated form of bilingual education, though not in the way that the public, or this school district, thinks of the term. The youngsters are in a stage that second-language education experts call "early production" or "speech emergence."
     That means that they are taking their first steps in English, but still need help in Spanish to comprehend a lesson. Many California schools use teaching aides in similar ways to help such students; more might seek to do so if the initiative takes effect. Fewer than a third of the state's 1.4 million limited-English students receive full-fledged bilingual education.
     Orange Unified aims to provide as many bilingual aides as possible for English beginners. Later in the day, these six students will get the same math lesson from their teacher, Paul, entirely in English. Then the aide will review the material with them again to make sure that they understand it.
     Principals across the district report that there are not enough qualified bilingual aides to go around. Where there are shortages, the "previews" and "reviews" are sometimes done by English-speaking aides who attempt to get the points across with gestures, illustrations and carefully chosen words.
     Some students in Paul's class have more advanced skills, but are still short of English fluency. They follow an English-only schedule. In all, Paul said, nearly half the students in her class of 20 are classified as "limited English proficient." The teacher said those students, most of whom would have been in Spanish-intensive bilingual kindergarten last year, are doing well.
     "The children have shown more confidence, and they've expanded their vocabularies," Paul said. "We want them all to have a chance to acquire English."

Uncertainty Over Classroom Aides
     But when asked whether this system is better than the one it replaced, Paul said: "It's going to be a number of years before we can come to any kind of consensus--if ever--that this is an improvement."
     She declined to elaborate or give her position on the initiative.
Would bilingual classroom aides even be allowed under Proposition 227? That depends on whom you ask, and it may well be decided by the courts. The text of the initiative does not specifically prohibit native language assistance.
     Instead, it calls for English beginners to receive "sheltered English immersion" for a "temporary transition period not normally intended to exceed one year" before being placed in mainstream classes. And the text defines English immersion classes as those in which "nearly all" instruction is in English, with a curriculum tailored to beginners.
     In some very limited circumstances, parents would be allowed to petition school districts for a waiver to get around the English immersion requirement. In theory, some children could be offered bilingual classes as a result.
     Another question that the Orange Unified program raises about the initiative is whether one year of English immersion--Unz's target--is enough to prepare children for the mainstream.
     Brinley Thomas, the principal of West Orange Elementary School, said that at least some of her students would need more than a year of extra help. But she said that it was too soon to estimate how many.
     But in one key gauge of student readiness, oral English fluency--the ability to speak up in class when called on--the district says that it is making significant headway.
     The Clark Consulting Group of Stockton, hired to evaluate the district program, reported in March that nearly one-fourth of all limited-English students in elementary schools took measurable steps toward English fluency from November to January. The consultant also noted that students in the earliest stages of learning were making the most noteworthy gains. District officials stress that the report was preliminary and that they are still awaiting test scores for reading and writing proficiency.
     Stephen D. Krashen, one of California's foremost academic proponents of bilingual education, said the data show that most limited-English students in Orange are not learning fast enough to survive in mainstream classes after one year of English immersion.
"It is not clear that even two or three years will be enough time," said Krashen, an education professor at USC, who reviewed the consultant's report. He said progress in English tends to slow as students get closer to fluency.
     McNealy, the West Orange Elementary teacher, is doing her best to get students over the hump. This school year, she began an English preschool class for 4-year-olds who barely speak the language.
     Chattering nonstop in English with her students, McNealy uses song, chant, dance and art to bring the language home. One morning, about 15 youngsters were building insects with glue, scissors, brads and construction paper. A girl came up to the teacher to show her work.
     "What's it called in English?" McNealy asked.
     Reply: not audible. Eyes: wide open.
     "A ladybug!" McNealy said. "Good job!"
     The class is part of what school officials call a massive effort to get children remedial help in English. Schools also offer extra English language classes after school and during vacations. In addition, teachers have logged many training hours to learn how to teach students English and to make other subjects, such as math and science, understandable in English.
     All that effort came at a price. Contrary to popular assumptions, district officials said they have saved little money by dropping bilingual education. In fact, expenses rose in the short term. Neil McKinnon, an assistant superintendent, said that legal bills alone reached $300,000 and that the preschool, consultant and other costs topped $100,000. But McKinnon said Orange Unified's example could prove useful to others.
     "Now we've paved the way for everyone else," McKinnon said.

* * *

One Formula for English
Proposition 227 on the June 2 ballot would effectively end bilingual education in California.
     What the initiative says: "All children in California public schools shall be taught English by being taught in English."
     Analysis: Currently, more than 400,000 students with limited English skills receive native-language instruction. Most would be shifted into English-intensive classes if the initiative passes, courts uphold it and school districts obey it.
     What the initiative says: Children with limited English skills "shall be educated through sheltered English immersion during a temporary transition period not normally intended to exceed one year." Such students would be placed in mainstream classes once they have "a good working knowledge of English."
     Analysis: The initiative leaves educators some wiggle room. The use of native languages in classrooms would be radically curtailed but apparently not banned. Schools would have to try to get limited-English students ready for mainstream classes after one year but would apparently have a bit of flexibility in meeting that target.
     What the initiative says: Parents would be allowed to seek waivers to the initiative's provisions under certain conditions. Eligible students would include those who already know English; those age 10 or older; and those who have "special needs" and have already spent at least 30 days in an English-language class.
     Analysis: The initiative sets high hurdles for obtaining waivers, especially for students in the "special needs" category. Parents in those cases would have to document the special needs and obtain consensus support from the school principal and faculty. Applications would be approved by the local school superintendent. All waiver applications would have to be renewed annually. Schools would only be required to offer an alternative such as a bilingual class if 20 students or more in a particular grade were granted waivers; otherwise a student with a waiver might be able to transfer to another school.