English-Language Learners

Calif.'s Year on the Bilingual Battleground

By Lynn Schnaiberg — June 02, 1999 12 min read

At Humphreys Avenue Elementary School in East Los Angeles, bilingual kindergarten teacher Rosa helps 5-year-old Yoni count seashells on a felt board. Yoni’s lips move, counting silently in Spanish as he touches each shell.

“Cuantos son?” Ms. León asks Yoni for his tally when it’s time to write a sentence, in Spanish, about what he’s found. When Yoni falters, Ms. León pulls over a metal tray filled with alphabet letters--among them are a, b, and c, and the Spanish characters ñ, ch, and rr.

About 80 miles south of here, at Ditmar Elementary School in Oceanside, bilingual kindergarten teacher Pam Arias directs her class in English for an art lesson. “Remember, you follow me,” she says, pointing to herself and then her class as she draws a fish on the blackboard. “I do it, then you do it. I do it, then you do it. Good job.”

Both schools ran bilingual education programs last school year. And both are charged with educating a student population that is overwhelmingly Latino, poor, and Spanish-speaking.

One year ago this week, California voters went to the polls--and over the heads of their elected state legislators--to pass Proposition 227, a ballot initiative that called on voters to “help end bilingual education in California.” The law, which took effect in the fall, requires schools in most cases to teach limited-English-proficient students almost entirely in English.

The reality has turned out to be far more varied and complex, in large part because of a clause in the law that offers parents the option of returning their children to bilingual education.

For example, Humphreys Elementary now has more students in bilingual classes than it did last year; Ditmar has none.

Before Proposition 227 passed June 2, 1998, roughly one-third of the state’s 1.4 million LEP students were enrolled in bilingual education. Although it may be months before the state knows exactly how many students are enrolled in what kinds of programs, policymakers and educators say this much is clear: Bilingual education continues to flourish in pockets across the Golden State, but overall, far fewer students are enrolled in such programs than in the past.

But the way the broadly worded new law has been interpreted and carried out from district to district has produced a dizzying array of responses at the local level: Humphreys Elementary in Los Angeles and Ditmar Elementary in San Diego County illustrate the extremes.

Everything from how a school or district has defined and presented parents their options under the law, to prevailing local politics, to the reputation of the school’s or district’s programs for LEP students before Proposition 227 has shaped the way the law has played out at the local level.

Managing Waivers

The law calls for students to be placed in “sheltered” or “structured” English-immersion classes where “nearly all” instruction is in English. The state has granted districts considerable leeway in crafting their programs and in defining “nearly all.” And the state has extended similar flexibility to districts in the way they manage waivers that enable parents to opt into bilingual classes for their children.

Supporters of bilingual education say such classes, which span a wide range of models but generally teach students at least part of the day in their native languages, allow students to keep pace academically while gradually learning English. Critics say students too often are left without adequate English skills or take too long to acquire them.

The school board for the roughly 700,000-student Los Angeles Unified School District went on record opposing the ballot initiative before it passed last year. Slightly more than a third--107,000--of the district’s 310,000 LEP students were in bilingual education last year.

The vast majority of the district’s LEP students are now in English immersion, but 22,000 students are in bilingual education programs because of waivers requested by their parents. That’s roughly 20 percent of last year’s bilingual education count.

But waiver rates vary tremendously from school to school within the sprawling system.

Humphreys Elementary--whose bilingual program is considered a district model--falls at the high end. Last year, 637 Humphreys students enrolled in bilingual classes; this year, with the student population at the pre-K-5 school growing, the number is 674. Both this year and last, roughly 78 percent of Humphreys’ LEP students were in bilingual education.

Longtime Principal Lydia Canales held eight parent meetings starting early last August to inform parents of their options under the new law. Waiver forms were handed out to all parents; those who wanted to sign them did. For the most part, Ms. Canales said, parents who requested a waiver received it, a trend mirrored in many district schools.

“Good bilingual programs are surviving here. This was not a hard sell with my community,” Ms. Canales said. “Prop 227 brought no revolution here.”

The same cannot be said for Ditmar Elementary.

Last year, virtually all LEP students at the pre-K-5 school enrolled in the bilingual program. This year, all 450 LEP students are taught in sheltered-English-immersion programs, where English is the language of instruction, and Spanish is used minimally for clarification when needed. Districtwide last year, more than half the 4,500 LEP students were in bilingual programs; this year, there are no bilingual classes.

The school board of the 21,300-student Oceanside Unified School District never took a formal position on Proposition 227 before the balloting last June because members knew they would not get a unanimous vote to support or oppose the measure, according to Emily Ortiz Wichmann, the board’s only Hispanic member. Both Ms. Wichmann and Superintendent Kenneth A. Noonan say they had concerns about bilingual education in their district long before the statewide vote.

Oceanside officials describe their coastal community of 154,000 as traditional, with a population mix that includes active and retired military personnel (the Camp Pendleton Marine base sits in the city’s back yard) and newly arrived immigrants from rural areas of Mexico. Unlike in Los Angeles, registered Republicans outnumber Democrats.

Following the initiative’s passage, the district opted for a “literal” interpretation of the new law, Mr. Noonan said. While the state school board’s regulations on Proposition 227 generally are viewed as giving districts more flexibility to grant waivers than the law itself does, Mr. Noonan said the legal advice his district received was that if push came to shove, it was the law--not the regulations--the district would have to stand on. While Mr. Noonan said he opposed the ballot initiative, the former bilingual teacher said the district was bound by voters to carry out the law’s intent. And, he added, the district was willing to try a new approach as part of an overall back-to-basics push.

In October, the Oceanside district made waiver forms available to schools to pass on to interested parents, and Ditmar Elementary held a parents’ meeting to go over the options. In December, the district sent out letters in Spanish to all parents of LEP students with a waiver form attached.

Of the 159 waiver requests received districtwide, just five have been approved by a team of teachers and administrators that evaluates each applicant, using district-approved criteria. Under the law, schools don’t have to offer an alternative to English immersion unless at least 20 students in a given grade level receive waivers, but they must allow students to transfer to another school where an alternative is offered.

Ditmar Principal Sherry Freeman de Leyva said that despite the bilingual program’s popularity at her school, she wasn’t surprised that just 20 parents requested waivers for pupils there. Many, she said, didn’t want to risk the possibility that their children would have to transfer from the neighborhood school.

And many Ditmar teachers say parents quickly realized that in Oceanside--in contrast to neighboring districts where bilingual education is still offered--waivers would be the exception to the rule. The district has come under fire for its waiver policy from some Latino parents, who say they are not being given a true choice.

Bilingual Education Survives

Although Proposition 227 created something far short of a revolution at Humphreys Elementary, Principal Canales says, it has still made its presence felt. While most of of the school’s LEP students are in the bilingual program, which enjoys strong community support, more than 200 have enrolled in English-immersion models the Los Angeles district crafted under the new law.

Humphreys’ LEP students spent their first 30 days last fall in an English classroom before parents could request waivers--a requirement under the law. Ms. Leónsaid those first few weeks in her kindergarten class were a challenge.

“I saw a lot of blank stares,” the 28-year-old bilingual teacher said. And the task of teaching students to read and write in Spanish had to wait.

For 3rd grade teacher Jorge Rios, those initial weeks forced him to assess his students’ English skills early on; many students in Humphreys’ bilingual program move into all-English instruction by the end of 3rd grade. Mr. Rios said he was “pleasantly surprised” to see that many had stronger skills than he first thought.

There was also widespread fear among school staff members in the fall, Ms. Canales said. Under the law, teachers who “willfully and repeatedly” refuse to implement Proposition 227 can be held personally liable in a lawsuit. To allay her faculty’s concerns of being accused of trying to sway parents to enroll their students in bilingual programs, the principal became the point person for parent questions on programs for their children.

For parents like Gloria Meza, the choice was easy. Ms. Meza said she’s seen her 11-year- old daughter, Brenda, flourish academically and in English through the school’s bilingual program. Ms. Meza, a native of Tijuana, Mexico, said she wanted her 7-year-old son, Erick, who had been in Humphreys’ bilingual program since preschool, to continue.

As a parent volunteer, Ms. Meza had helped canvass her East Los Angeles neighborhood to urge residents to vote against Proposition 227; in the aftermath of its passage, she helped explain program options to parents.

“For us, the real fear was that we wouldn’t have choices,” Ms. Meza said.

A Sea Change

From 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. one day a week, classrooms at Ditmar Elementary School in Oceanside are reserved for English-as-a-second-language classes for more than 100 parents from Ditmar and nearby schools. Even many educators who opposed Proposition 227 say those classes--paid for out of a $50 million fund created by the new law--are a step in the right direction.

Many of the parents gathered in a class taught by Principal Freeman de Leyva hail from the state of Oaxaca in southern Mexico. They’ve found work in the strawberry, tomato, and flower fields that dot the local landscape or in service or factory jobs. The ESL classes are intended to help such parents learn English so that they can in turn help their children, whose homework is in English.

But for now, Ditmar teachers say so many parents have limited English skills that it’s nearly impossible for them to support their children’s learning at home.

It’s been a frustrating year for parents like Socorro Dolores, who arrived nine years ago with a 6th grade education from a Oaxacan village. Ms. Dolores said she’s glad her 5-year-old daughter, Griselda, is learning English. But, she said, Griselda would have learned the language anyway as did her older sisters, who went through Ditmar’s bilingual program.

“I know she’ll learn because this is a good school,” Ms. Dolores said in Spanish during a break from the ESL class. “But I don’t think everything had to change like this.”

So far, Ditmar teachers and test scores report rapid gains in students’ oral English skills this year. Some see students choosing to write in their journals in English rather than Spanish. More children are requesting books to read in English in the school library. And many teachers say they’ve been surprised by their LEP students’ overall academic progress in English immersion.

On the flip side is a lingering concern about students’ true proficiency in reading and writing in English. Teachers have said some students tune out as the day wears on because they can’t keep up in English. And some teachers have slowed the academic pace because it takes much longer to convey information.

Ms. Arias said far fewer children in her class are ready to read compared with last year because their English vocabulary is much more limited than in Spanish, the language spoken at home and in the neighborhoods where her students live. Some teachers in higher grades say they periodically pull students out of subjects such as science to do extra work in English so they can read the textbooks they’re expected to study.

Proposition 227 clearly represents a sea change for Ditmar’s bilingual teachers, especially those teaching before the 3rd grade, when many LEP students at Ditmar used to move from Spanish to English. The changes the new law brought happened so fast that teachers received no specific training in how to teach through sheltered English immersion; many received new materials just before the start of school in September.

“This has been the hardest year of my life,” said Lynn Gonzalez, a 2nd grade bilingual teacher. She said she feels “enormous pressure” to make the district look successful by producing English-proficient students by year’s end, adding that her training taught her it takes at least three years.

“I’m implementing something that goes totally against my beliefs,” she said.

While the Oceanside district’s policy calls for instruction in English with Spanish as a clarification only when needed, Spanish has not been wiped away from Ditmar Elementary’s daily existence. Parents and school staff members converse in Spanish, students speak to each other in Spanish in classrooms and on the playground, books for free reading are in Spanish and English, and teachers use both languages on their own time to tutor students struggling to keep up.

Ms. Freeman de Leyva, a former bilingual teacher and bilingual-program coordinator for the district, said she’s reserving judgment on the effects of Proposition 227. She wants to know what it will mean in the long run for Latino student achievement.

“We’ll see,” she said. “It’s been a long, long year.”

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A version of this article appeared in the June 02, 1999 edition of Education Week as Calif.'s Year on the Bilingual Battleground


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