Orange County Register
Wednesday, December 28, 1997
SANTA ANA -- The first-graders elbow and jostle at the feet of teacher Gloria Matta Tuchman as she launches into story time by reading "The Nutcracker."
Amid the tussling, Elsa de la Cruz, 6, scolds the boy next to her.
"Habla en ingles," she says.
That's the theory -- and usually the practice -- in Tuchman's class at Taft Elementary School.
Teaching English is Tuchman's top priority for her 20 students, whose native languages are Spanish and Vietnamese. And, if Tuchman gets her way, her classroom could be the model for all English learners in California.
Tuchman is co-sponsor of "English for the Children," a ballot initiative to virtually end instruction in Spanish or other foreign languages for California's 1.4 million students who speak limited English. The initiative received approval from the secretary of state last week to appear on the June 1998 ballot.
Some opponents say Tuchman's initiative will lead limited-English students to sink rather than swim through school. But if her class is a guide, students learning English will still receive a good-quality education.
Ironically, some of Tuchman's harshest critics say the law she backs could make her most supportive teaching techniques illegal.
Instead of teaching children to read and write in their native tongue first and slowly moving to English, Tuchman advocates immediate immersion in English.
Tuchman uses a simplified vocabulary, broad gestures and visual props. Spelling lists focus on phonics and common letter sounds. A pre-Christmas list: rug, hug, mug, bun, sun, run, fun.
A poster of quarters, dimes, nickels and pennies illustrates lessons in math and the American presidents. A pie pan illustrates the word "tin." A drawing sparks a debate over the difference between a rug and a mat. She produces a cup and a mug to show the difference between the two objects.
"What can you drink out of a mug?" Tuchman asks.
Milk, chocolate, tea, juice, coffee, the kids reply. Cappuccino, says one.
"Cappuccino," Tuchman, a teacher for 33 years, says with a smile. "And these are limited-English children."
Most of Tuchman's students know a few hundred English words.
"My first-graders are the lowest (at Taft) when it comes to language levels," she says. "You'd call them the newcomers class."
Dennise Correa, 6, speaks Spanish at home with her family. She plays with friends in Spanish. She watches mostly Spanish-language television.
"I speak English to the teacher," she says.
Tuchman concedes she occasionally uses Spanish in class. She also has part-time aides who speak Spanish and Vietnamese to help struggling students.
"We speak Spanish or Vietnamese if they need to answer a question," Tuchman says. "There's no language police here."
Few bilingual education advocates quarrel with Tuchman's methods. Most California students already learn English through immersion rather than in their primary language. Last year, only 13 percent of Orange County's 134,000 limited-English students were taught primarily in Spanish. More than 90,000 of those students were taught through immersion.
But some critics say Tuchman is violating the spirit of her own initiative, co-sponsored by Silicon Valley entrepreneur Ron Unz, by using languages other than English in class.
"In essence, she's using a bilingual approach, so why would she want to eliminate it?" says Maria Quezada, president of the California Bilingual Education Coalition. "What the initiative says is that if instruction is going on, it needs to be in English."
The initiative states: "All children shall be taught English by being taught in English." English learners would study in an immersion program for no more than one year in most cases, before being mixed with fluent students. Parents who wish to have their children taught in Spanish or other languages must petition their school board for a special waiver.
Quezada, a professor at California State University, Long Beach, and resident of Rancho Santa Margarita, refers to language in the initiative that entitles parents to sue a teacher "who willfully and repeatedly refuses to implement the terms of this statute."
"This law is so poorly written," Quezada says. "I could be a parent and say the initiative isn't being implemented and (Tuchman) could be held liable. Her method of instruction could be under fire."
Tuchman dismisses the likelihood of being sued. The lawsuit language was included in the initiative to give parents a tool to force schools to teach in English rather than another language, she says.
"My dream is the end of mandated bilingual education," she says. "Parental empowerment. Parental control."
Several Taft parents said they want their children taught in English, not Spanish. Juana Medina, mother of three Taft students, said she dropped out of high school, in part, because she wasn't taught English first.
"I was brought up with Spanish and English," said Medina, who attended Santa Ana's Lowell Elementary. "I got confused when they taught me in two languages. That's why I think I was slower. My children are a lot smarter than a lot of kids that are learning both Spanish and English."
Taft Principal Bill Hart said the immersion program is so popular that parents are lining up to send their children to the school.
"We have a waiting list at every grade level," he said. "If I threw open the school, we'd probably double the population."
Tuchman had to fight the Santa Ana Unified school board a decade ago to allow her to teach with the immersion method. It's now the only method at Taft.
"This whole school is a success because of the program, and that's why I'm fighting so hard," Tuchman says. "Good teachers are important. But the program also works. We all share in the glory."
Last year, 16 percent of Taft's 380 limited-English students were reclassified as fluent. By contrast, only about 4 percent of all Santa Ana students were redesignated as fluent.
Test scores are also higher than in most Santa Ana schools. Taft students scored in the 63rd percentile nationally on the Comprehensive Test of Basic Skills, while elementary students in most Santa Ana schools scored in the 30th percentile.
But immersion cannot claim all the credit for Taft's success. The school has fewer low-income students receiving free lunches, a smaller number of limited-English speakers and a lower transiency rate than the Santa Ana average.
"Her school is one of the upscale schools in the community," said Doug Mitchell, a University of California, Riverside, professor who analyzed Santa Ana's programs for limited-English students. "Poverty typically, in research, explains more variations in performance than anything. It's a mistake to say a program with more socio-economically advanced students is better."
Critics of immersion say academic progress is retarded when teachers only use English. Tuchman says her students' success defies that perception.
In math, they are learning to write their numbers up to 100. They are memorizing their sums up to 10.
"Nothing is dumbed down," Tuchman says. "Everything is very possible. There are no miracles. It's just common sense."