Orange County Register

Thursday, September 24, 1998

Bilingualism Thrives at This School
EDUCATION: Dual-language program at Gates Elementary in Lake Forest is parents' choice.
By JOHN GITTELSON, The Orange County Register

LAKE FOREST The two mothers want the same thing for their children: an education that opens doors.

Alicia Ontiveros, who was born in Mexico, and Tonya Iribarne, a California native, believe they found that type of schooling in the dual-language immersion program at Gates Elementary School, where students learn to be fluent in both Spanish and English by the sixth grade.

"These students get real opportunities," Ontiveros, a mother of three Gates students, said in Spanish.

"I want my kids to come out ahead with a good future," said Iribarne, also a mother of three Gates students.

Parents had to fight to save Gates' dual-language program from Proposition 227, the voter-approved law that requires almost all instruction to be in English. Their victory last month irked proponents of the initiative and made the school a political flash point.

Although Gates parents rave about the program, test scores and other academic measures cast doubt on whether students whose first language is Spanish reap the same benefits as native English speakers.

The Orange County Register is spending the school year reporting on how two issues play out in the wake of Prop. 227: language and the law. Both issues are under a microscope at Gates.

Prop. 227's passage in June reflected widespread frustration with bilingual education. But people at Gates say their school proves bilingual education can work.

"A lot of bilingual programs are a hoax," said Iribarne, a part-time Spanish and English-as-a-second-language teacher, who speaks Spanish to her children. "I'm hoping with Prop. 227 that those programs are out and programs like ours will grow and improve education in California."

Gates is an exception to many rules of traditional bilingual education. The goal is to start children early in a second language so they speak with no accent and learn to read, write and think equally well in two tongues.

While other schools are forced to use English almost full-time, Gates' dual-immersion students spend 90 percent of kindergarten and first-grade learning in Spanish. They even recite the Pledge of Allegiance in Spanish: "Juro lealtad a la bandera de los Estados Unidos de America..."

About half of the dual-language program's 300 students are native Spanish speakers.

The first few days of school have been tough for kindergartners such as Randy Winvick, 5, who speaks only English at home. Randy staged a revolt last week, throwing a temper tantrum in class because the teacher spoke to him only in Spanish, said his mother Mercedes Winvick. But Winvick, like most Gates parents, is confident the program will help her son in the long run.

"We expected this," she said of the tantrum. "I wouldn't have put him in if I wasn't committed."

That commitment by parents underscores another key difference between Gates and other schools.

All of the dual-language program students enroll by choice. Most come from outside Gates' boundaries. An additional 350 Gates students, including about 150 limited-English children, study in English-only classrooms.

The Iribarnes, who live in Mission Viejo, and the Ontiveroses, who live in Laguna Hills, both are within walking distance of other elementary schools but choose to drive several miles so their children could go to Gates.

"If they closed the program at Gates, I think I would look for a way for my children to continue in Spanish," Alicia Ontiveros said.

Like many Spanish-speaking parents, Ontiveros regards her children's maintaining their native language as important for cultural reasons.

"It teaches them about their roots, their origins, to be proud of their race, their identity," said Ontiveros, who emigrated with her husband, Sergio, from Guadalajara 16 years ago.

Southern California is becoming increasingly Hispanic. Twenty years ago, Hispanics made up just 14 percent of Orange County students. Now they make up 39 percent and are expected to surpass the number of white students currently 44 percent within five years.

But avoiding American culture and language is an uphill battle, especially in a predominantly English-language community like Lake Forest.

On Gates' playground, students speak English as they shoot basketballs, climb the jungle gym and chant jump-rope rhymes: "I love coffee, I love tea."

Fourth-grade teacher Katharine Molina started one school day this week by having her students practice math problems and correct sentences in Spanish. She taught social studies in Spanish, assigning students to paint topographical maps of California and label the regions el desierto, las montanas, la costa, el valle central.

While painting, the students chatted mostly in English. Boys spoke of TV wrestling matches. Girls talked about soccer matches. They joked and flirted fourth-grade style.

"Stop it!" Irene Ontiveros shouted at a boy who threatened her with a wet brown paintbrush.

Irene's brother, Sergio Ontiveros Jr., 11, said his favorite sport is basketball not the Mexican national sport of soccer. His favorite television programs are "The Simpsons" and "South Park." His favorite reading material is Mad magazine.

Gates supports the dual-immersion program with a five-year $1.2 million federal grant that pays for Spanish-language textbooks, classes in English and Spanish for parents, and summer school so children can continue to practice their Spanish.

"English is the dominant language here," Tonya Iribarne said. "I never worry about my kids learning it."

The story would be different if the family moved to Argentina, but their education decision would be similar.

"I'd put them in the same type of school," Iribarne said. "But we'd probably speak English at home."