USA Today

Friday, November 13, 1998

Bilingual Battle Still Rages in Classrooms

The fate of bilingual education in California is being decided in elementary schools such as Heliotrope and Park Avenue southeast of downtown Los Angeles, where conflicting philosophies are as plain as the ABCs displayed above the chalkboards in the first-grade classrooms.

At Heliotrope, where 99% of the 1,300 students are Latino, the first letters of the alphabet are illustrated by an apple for A, a boy for B and a cow for C.

At nearby Park Avenue, where the 1,250 students also are almost exclusively Latino, alphabets on the walls begin with pictures of a tree for arbol, a flag for bandera and a rabbit for conejo.

After California voters passed Proposition 227 in June, bilingual education was supposed to be dismantled. The proposition explicitly ordered that all children be taught "overwhelmingly" in English. Most classrooms were supposed to be like Heliotrope's, where English dominates.

But two months after the start of the school year, that's not the case - at least not yet.

Across the state, in the 1,000 school districts and 8,000 individual schools, bilingual education is fading in some but still flourishing in many more. Some districts, notably San Francisco, are openly hostile to the new law and have chosen to ignore it by claiming special circumstances. In others, parents took advantage of a provision in the law and decided to keep their kids in bilingual classes.

Threats of lawsuits
The response so far has prompted complaints and threats of lawsuits from Ron Unz, the Silicon Valley millionaire who wrote and paid for 227, and his allies in the state's major school districts.

Unz says some districts, such as the sprawling Los Angeles Unified District (LAUSD), are trying to preserve bilingual classes by simply calling them "English immersion" and continuing to do what they did before 227. He says this is "utterly illegal."

"The measure has very sharp teeth," Unz says. "Any administrator who willfully violates it can be sued and held personally liable. . . . A number of elected officials and administrators may have to be driven into personal bankruptcy to get compliance before others start obeying the law."

Others suggest the inconsistency is caused by confusion, not defiance.

"No one knows what's going on," says Harry Pachon, a 227 opponent and head of the Tomas Rivera Institute, a Latino-issues think tank in Los Angeles. "We're seeing all this variation. Teachers are scared. Parents are confused. Every possible scenario could be playing out right now."

The major reason for inconsistency in implementing 227 is the waiver provision. It allows parents to keep their kids out of English immersion by filling out a form declaring they have an "educational need" to remain in bilingual classes. Waivers can be filed at any time during the school year and renewed yearly.

At first, fear
At Heliotrope, which is located in the city of Maywood but is part of Los Angeles United, most children are in English-immersion classes, where instruction is exclusively or predominantly in English. Only 23 children with limited English sought waivers that allow them to remain in bilingual classes where instruction is predominantly in Spanish.

At first, in these English-immersion classes, it was painful for the kids, most of whom spoke little English. Some were afraid; some understood so little they went home in tears at the end of the day. Now most pupils are adjusting, and it's partly because Spanish has not completely disappeared from the classrooms.

"I've been pleasantly surprised. The children can handle (learning in English)," says second-grade teacher Glenn Heap, who has switched from teaching 80% of the time in Spanish to 90% in English. "I think they're going to score higher in their tests. By the time they're seniors, their SAT scores will be higher because they'll have had 10 years of academic exposure to English."

Another teacher, Dora Barraza, says that, when needed, she will outline a lesson to her first-graders in Spanish, teach it in English, and then follow up with questions in Spanish to ensure they all understood.

Still, even parents who support the idea of English immersion have their concerns.

"I'm frustrated," says Saida Quezada, the mother of a third-grader. "I can't help much with her homework."

At Park Avenue, a Los Angeles Unified school in the city of Cudahy, bilingual classes were the choice of the overwhelming number of parents. The principal and teachers actively lobbied parents to seek waivers to keep their kids in bilingual classes, arguing that their children ultimately would be better off learning English after they mastered Spanish.

The bulletin board just inside the school door still features a banner in English and Spanish: "Parents: Be informed, know your rights, select!"

Only 70 children sought English-immersion classes and all but one already were in those classes last year.

"We swamped them with data, so they could make the best decision for their child," Park Avenue principal Nora Armenta says. Her message: "The more education you have in the first language, the more successful you are in transition to the second."

Cesar Beteta's 6-year-old son, Rene, was the only child who switched from bilingual to an English-immersion class this year. And Beteta, 28, had to work hard to talk his wife into allowing it. Both are immigrants from El Salvador.

"My son has had no trouble (this year)," Beteta says. "Bilingual was confusing for him because he was picking up Spanglish. Now he hears English at school, and both Spanish and English at home. He's learning them both."

Only a few school districts are openly defiant - San Francisco Unified, for instance. The district, where 31% of the 63,000 students are limited-English-proficient, says that 227 does not apply to it because it is under a 24-year-old federal court order to provide assistance to non-English-speaking students - even though the order does not specifically require bilingual classes. So far, no one has challenged the district's position in court.

San Francisco was one of only two counties in the state where a majority of voters voted against 227. Oakland was the other.

"Our initial tone (after 227 passed) was we would do everything possible legally and legislatively to maintain our bilingual programs," says Sandina Robbins, spokeswoman for the San Francisco school district.

During the campaign against the measure, and even now, opponents complained that the waiver provision was not flexible enough to allow parents to make informed choices for their kids. But it's turned out to be a wide loophole.

Students and the law
That's good news for bilingual educators, who get to continue a teaching strategy they support and receive bonuses amounting to thousands of dollars a year.

"If a parent comes in and says, 'My child is unhappy, I want her out (of English immersion),' that in of itself would be a reason for a waiver," says Socorro Serrano, spokeswoman for LAUSD. "There is enough wiggle room (in 227) to accomplish what we need to accomplish for kids and still abide by the law."

According to an unscientific survey by USA TODAY of the state's largest districts, where non-English-speaking students are concentrated, the waiver rates vary dramatically, from a high in Oakland, where 33% of children remain in bilingual classes, to a low of 3.5% in Los Angeles.

"Waivers are being granted for whole classes and schools and that's not even remotely close to what was intended by 227," says Alice Callaghan, an Episcopalian priest who runs a day-care center for immigrant children in downtown Los Angeles and is a leading supporter of the measure.

Still, the waiver rates suggest that many parents were not as enamored of bilingual education as opponents of 227 insisted during the campaign. Either parents don't understand the theory behind bilingual education - or they're not persuaded it works. Surviving means English

"We have parents who think it's patriotic to forget their primary language and go for English only," says Rose Patron, director of Multicultural-Multilingual Education for Fresno schools and a vociferous critic of 227. "For many immigrant parents, surviving means speaking English - surviving has nothing to do with being bilingual."

Likewise, there is no obvious explanation for the variation in waiver rates. In San Diego, Frank Till, a senior deputy superintendent, had predicted a higher waiver rate than 20%. "I was surprised so I asked around, and what I found is that many parents think the (English-immersion) model we created is worth allowing their kids to go through," Till says.

Meanwhile, educators also are debating how to interpret 227. The measure declares that students will be taught "overwhelmingly" in English. No one knows precisely what "overwhelmingly" means. The state board of education has declined to specify a percentage figure, and school districts accordingly are coming up with different definitions.

In LAUSD, students in one type of English-immersion classes may hear Spanish only 10% of the time, while others may hear Spanish 30% of the time. It depends on the school, the teacher, the students or whether there is a bilingual aide in the classroom.

In Gilroy, California's "Garlic Capital" south of San Jose, administrators have decided that "overwhelmingly" means 60% English and 40% Spanish. In San Diego, administrators say a 70%-30% breakdown complies with 227. And in Fresno, administrators decided not to specify a percentage breakdown at all.

Unless someone challenges these districts - either Unz or a parent of a child - they will continue to do whatever they're doing.

"If all they did was get rid of Spanish, that would accomplish nothing because what we want is actual teaching of English," Callaghan says. "What's so dismaying is to discover how few teachers are prepared to teach reading in English. They don't know how. That wasn't so clear before 227 and now it is."

While the adults argue, 227 seems to be having an effect in the schoolyard at one school. At Heliotrope, teacher Heap says his second-graders now talk to each other in English about 40% of the time. Last year, they spoke almost exclusively in Spanish.

"What surprised me the most is how much they want to speak English," he says. "They are determined to speak English, and they're very excited about the opportunity to learn English."