Wall Street Journal

Monday, September 28, 1998

A California Measure Ties Some Teachers' Tongues
Bilingual education dispute crops up in Gilroy.
By PATRICK HARRINGTON, Wall Street Journal Staff Writer

Marcos Pineiro came to Compton, Calif., from Spain last month to teach grade- school students with limited English skills in their native Spanish.

School district officials recruited Mr. Pineiro and about 200 other bilingual teachers in Spain for California's current school year. The teachers arrived here largely unprepared for the effects of Proposition 227. The ballot initiative has outlawed bilingual education in most of the state's public school system.

California voters passed the measure in June to replace a dual-language system, in which students were taught English but learned other subjects in their native tongue. Critics, including some parents of students receiving bilingual education, had complained that the system led to high drop-out rates and low English literacy. The proposition mandates for all students a period of "English immersion," in which instruction in all subjects is supposed to take place "overwhelmingly" in English.

One result is an Alice-in-Wonderland scene in many California classrooms: Non-native English-speaking teachers teaching non-native English-speaking pupils in English. These teachers and students are in a kind of limbo, muddling through in a language that isn't their own.

"I mean, what's this? English? All English?" says Mr. Pineiro, a scholarly looking 28-year-old, who teaches his first-graders in accented but passable English. "That's fine for me, because I will improve. But I wonder to myself: Is it fair?"

In all, about 400 bilingual teachers from Spain work in California's public schools, where roughly 1.4 million students, or 25% of the state's public- school population, are classified as having limited English skills. These teachers' predicament is a revealing lesson in the aftereffects of Proposition 227, a controversial referendum at the center of the debate over immigration and assimilation. In Texas, Illinois and elsewhere, some opponents of bilingual education view the measure as a blueprint for institutionalizing English-only classrooms.

Juan Bargueno, a native of Spain who teaches second grade at Hoover Street Elementary School in Los Angeles, says he has been teaching under Proposition 227 for two months now and doesn't think it is working. "My children can't read in Spanish or English," he says. "They have spent two months without any reading at all."

Children can study a language for just a small part of the day before they stop paying attention, Mr. Bargueno says. "The bad cases are completely lost," he adds.

California school districts have been recruiting bilingual teachers abroad for about a decade. In addition to Spain, this year's hires include teachers from Mexico, Hong Kong and the Philippines.

Recruiters from Compton Unified School District went to Spain as recently as April under a visiting-teacher program run jointly by the California Department of Education and the Spanish Ministry of Education. Mr. Pineiro says they assured him California would still need bilingual teachers, even if the then- pending Proposition 227 passed. That is because it gives parents the right to request that a child be moved to a so-called sheltered class, where teachers are allowed to speak some Spanish and use some Spanish-language materials.

It isn't yet clear what role bilingual teachers will end up playing in California classrooms. Proposition 227 has been upheld in federal court and federal appeals court in San Francisco but may still face a higher legal challenge. A legal dispute continues to rage over whether entire schools could be exempt from the Proposition.

Eda Caraballo, a coordinator of the visiting-teacher program for the California Department of Education, emphasizes the state is grateful to have the bilingual teachers at a time when qualified instructors are hard to find. "It's better for these schools to have an experienced teacher rather than someone on an emergency credential," Ms. Caraballo says.

At least for now, each district is drawing its own conclusions about what "overwhelming" means, says Doug Stone, a spokesman for the California Department of Education. "What we do believe is the focus ought to be on English instruction," he says. In Compton, officials say 90% of instruction should be in English.

Mr. Pineiro says he rarely speaks Spanish to a student because he doesn't want anyone to report him. Some of his students tease him about his pronunciation. "Caaahhr," he says, emphasizing the way he learned to speak English in Europe. Then, wrinkling up his nose, he imitates the nasal pronunciation his students use to correct him.

Mr. Pineiro's brother, Oscar, who also teaches first grade in Compton, says he doesn't mind teaching in English. Explaining simple concepts without the aid of a common language is sometimes frustrating, he admits. "You must be like an actor," he says, waving his hand widely in the air.

Mr. Pineiro says he has only 20 English books for the more than 80 students in his classes. "They told us, 'You have to be creative,' " he says. Without enough books, teachers rely heavily on photocopied pages.

In Paso Robles, a small, coastal farming community between Los Angeles and San Francisco, district officials say they think 60% of instruction should be in English. So teachers there are allowed to use Spanish 40% of the time.

On a recent day at the Georgia Brown Elementary School in Paso Robles, a group of bilingual teachers talked about why they want to use Spanish with students some of the time. "I'm proud of showing them that [Spanish] isn't something that will keep them from getting a good job," says Monica Sierra, a first-grade teacher.

Indeed, a common language between teachers and students can create valuable bonds. During a recess period, Ms. Sierra plays with her class beneath the shade of a large tree at the far end of the soccer field. As they run to grab a handkerchief she holds, she encourages them in English. But when recess ends, and the children scurry back over the grass towards school, a little boy is left sobbing on his knees.

"Que paso?" Ms. Sierra asks him tenderly, putting her arm around him. He explains in Spanish that he didn't do well in the game.

Sometimes teachers and students stumble as they search for the right word or phrase in English. On the first day of school last month, Mr. Bargueno prepares his second-graders to walk across the playground in an orderly fashion. As they chatter away in Spanish, Mr. Bargueno, who was hired in 1990, nags them in heavily accented English.