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
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.
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.
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.
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."
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.
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."
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
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.
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.
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."
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.
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
Paul's first-grade class at West Orange Elementary School, English immersion
does not mean only English.
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
answers a boy named Anthony. A moment later, another, named Cesar, calls
out, "I did it, teacher!" and Feld responds, "Good, excellent."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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."
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
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.
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.
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
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
"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
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.
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.
it called in English?" McNealy asked.
Reply: not audible.
Eyes: wide open.
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.
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."
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."
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.
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