Washington Post

Tuesday, August 4, 1998

In Calif. Classrooms, a Troubled Transition
By WILLIAM BOOTH, Washington Post Staff Writer

LOS ANGELES, Aug. 3—The sweeping social experiment known as bilingual education officially ended today in the state where it began. Confusion reigned in many California school districts and defiance in others as teachers struggled to switch from Korean, Armenian and Spanish to all-English, all the time, often without the help of textbooks or lesson plans.

In Oakland and San Francisco, where schools do not open for another few weeks, officials were still holding out against implementation of Proposition 227, the voter initiative that passed with overwhelming support on June 2. The initiative, sponsored by Silicon Valley software entrepreneur Ron Unz, replaced bilingual education with a year of English language immersion. Except in charter schools, students are then to be pushed into mainstream all-English classes.

The end of bilingual education in California, the largest state in the union and the one with the largest immigrant population, is being closely watched by other states also facing influxes of immigrant children. Reflecting resentment over the spreading challenge, a bill curtailing funding for bilingual education has been introduced in Congress. But in the meantime, the change began today in Los Angeles.

In Maria Elena Crabb's first day with her new second-grade class at Alexandria Avenue Elementary School here, students who previously were taught almost exclusively in Spanish found their teacher introducing herself this morning in English. As the children, in their new blue and white uniforms, sat squirming on the floor at her feet, Mrs. Crabb began reading from the storybook about little Madeline:

"In an old house in Paris that was covered with vines, lived 12 little girls in two straight lines."

Some of the children understood almost every word (vine was a tough one), and waved their hands in the air to answer questions. But others seemed lost and withdrawn. "You see those faces?" asked Crabb later. "Total blanks."

In Los Angeles, where a new semester started today at 50 year-round schools, the district is replacing bilingual education with two alternatives. In the first, students are taught exclusively in English. Under the second, students, such as Crabb's second-graders, are also taught mostly in English, but their teachers are allowed to occasionally explain concepts and words in Spanish.

How much Spanish?

"Nobody knows," said Alexandria Principal Carol Labrow. "As they've explained it to us, before we had a full cup of Spanish. Now we have a quarter cup. It is a precious resource and I'm telling my teachers not to waste it."

But Labrow promised that no students would be punished for speaking their primary languages. "I'm not going to have a bunch of kindergarteners out on the playground crying because no one will tell them what to do in Spanish," she said.

The termination of bilingual education has produced bitter feelings among many of its advocates, who believe that students are well served by first learning reading, writing and core subjects such as math and science in their primary languages, and then being "transitioned" into all-English classes after several years. Many bilingual activists have charged that Proposition 227 was racist and anti-immigrant.

But opponents of bilingual education describe it as a failed experiment that became bogged down, where students spent years learning Spanish and not English, the language immigrant children most need to succeed. In California, only 7 percent of bilingual students made that elusive "transition" each year.

San Francisco Superintendent Waldemar Rojas has said he plans to continue offering bilingual education, as the school district is still under a federal court order dating from the 1970s. That order, the so-called Lau decision, began the bilingual age by guaranteeing lessons in a language the student can understand. Rojas said the decision to continue bilingual education is not an act of defiance, but adherence to a court order.

In Orange County south of here, school officials took advantage of a loophole and have delayed ending bilingual education, but only for several months. One panicky official in Santa Ana compared ending bilingual education to stopping a speeding train.

Over the last 20 years, California educators created an elaborate bureaucracy for teaching students whose primary language is not English. Foreign-language textbook sales boomed. Bilingual teachers were coveted and given an extra $5,000 a year. About 1.4 million students in California are not proficient in English, and at least half of them have been in some kind of bilingual program. But with the passage of Proposition 227, schools had only 60 days to come up with a new way to teach.

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Friday refused to grant an injunction to block implementation of the initiative statewide. An appeal is pending.

In another ruling, U.S. District Judge Lourdes Gillespie Baird turned down another challenge by the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund to block the end of bilingual education in Los Angeles. MALDEF attorneys had argued that the Los Angeles district is unprepared for such a massive upheaval. But Baird said that the teachers were quite capable of teaching English.

"You're not giving the teachers the credit they're due," Baird said.

But in Los Angeles, half of the district's 680,000 students are not fluent in English. And at Alexandria Elementary School, the teachers today did their best without textbooks or detailed teaching plans.

Maria Elena Crabb said the problem is not so much teaching her students English, but teaching them other subjects. In math, for example, she must first teach them the numbers in English, and then introduce concepts such as addition and subtraction, borrowing and carrying, all in English.

"I think the smart kids will succeed, like anything else in life," Crabb said. "The ones who are slower? They might not get it."

On the first day of class, as the children sounded off their assigned numbered spaces in line, several could not utter the magic words in English. Crabb was not disheartened. She coaxed the numbers out of them, and when they spoke in Spanish, she simply repeated their words in English. Over and over and over again.