Bilingual School Braces for ‘the Big One’
At Walnut Park Elementary, a heavily Latino school in Huntington Park, administrators and teachers are preparing for the looming abolishment of bilingual education as if it were “the Big One.”
“We’d better be prepared with a plan, or chaos will break loose,’ said Principal Kenneth Urbina. “We’re not going to let that happen here.”
When voters approved Proposition 227 in June, they gave educators 60 days to revise curriculum, retrain and reassign teachers, and buy new textbooks.
The Los Angeles Unified School District has ordered staff not to change anything pending the outcome of a hearing Wednesday on a lawsuit seeking to invalidate the law, but Urbina feels he does not have a day to lose.
The principal and his staff are tackling a wide range of logistical challenges as they move to comply with Proposition 227, which requires that students with limited English to be placed in a yearlong English immersion program. In the process, they are redefining their 6-year-old school of 1,300 students and its position in a working-class neighborhood both as a center of learning and a nexus of community programs.
They are crunching numbers to determine how many of their English learners in each grade level must be placed in immersion classes. Will there be enough non-English speakers in each grade level to support an immersion class, or will they have to mix children of different ages and grade levels?
If hundreds of parents who are unhappy with their children’s performance in English immersion seek waivers, will Walnut Park have enough teachers and classrooms to accommodate special bilingual classes or will students have to be sent to other schools?
The school psychologist at the year-round school is trying to devise “scripts"--tailored for specific age groups--to inform students about the changes without scaring them, as well as strategies for helping teachers cope with the stress of change. “How we approach this could determine whether there will be positive consequences,” school psychologist Carmen Tardaguila said.
Then there is the problem of what to do with hundreds of Spanish-language textbooks: Toss them out or try to sell or trade them to states such as Florida and Texas that embrace bilingual education?
All are issues that, sooner or later, must be confronted by every California school with a significant number of students with limited English skills.
“We’ve got to try to answer these questions now because this thing is going to hit us like an earthquake--and there will be aftershocks for years to come,” said Susan Saenz, the school’s coordinator of curriculum for bilingual programs.
Saenz is continually promoting her priorities of “figuring out where the most movement of students and teachers will be, and keeping as many of our kids as we can at this school when the dust settles.”
Pressures of Change
That will not be easy. State educators have yet to release a working model of English immersion programs that schools can use.
For right now, the best statistical data and informed speculation Saenz can muster adds up to bad news.
“The numbers are telling me we may have to combine some grades and transport some students elsewhere, possibly split up some siblings in the process,” she said with a sigh over a stack of papers covered with notes and mathematical calculations.
That is partly because class size in California is limited to 20 students in kindergarten through third grade. If 25 second-graders are not fluent in English, 20 can form an immersion class, but where do the other five students go?
“I foresee a lot of criers and hardship,” Saenz said. “I can even imagine myself calling another school and saying, ‘Can I trade you five Spanish speakers for five English speakers?’ ”
Around the corner and up the stairs from Saenz’s office, bilingual education teacher Norma Rodriguez recently added “happy songs and dances in English” to her list of daily class activities, in part, to counter what she described as “a growing tenseness among my kids. They are feeling the pressure.”
“It’s a way of introducing them to English in a manner that isn’t threatening,” Rodriguez said as her students completed an enthusiastic performance of one of their favorites, a brief upbeat song and dance number called “Cheerios.”
Still, Rodriguez is concerned about students like 8-year-old Andrea Martinez, who cradled her head in her hands during a bilingual geography lesson and worried that “I’ll forget how to speak Spanish. That would be bad because I wouldn’t be able to talk to my mom anymore.”
Walnut Park’s students are not the only ones who may need assistance coping with the advent of Proposition 227. There is already an anxiety among teachers that is almost palpable.
“Technically, this is not a crisis, but we’re going to handle it in the same way, bringing together the school nurse, teachers, principal, bilingual coordinator, Title 1 coordinator and others as a team,” Tardaguila said.
“And we’ll work on some scripts. Obviously, you are not going to talk to a kindergartner the same way you would talk to a fifth-grader,” she said. “We’re also going to have to calm the teachers down before we send them back to their kids.”
To hear teachers tell it, the pressures born of the hasty implementation of the biggest academic shift in recent history are trouble enough.
But at Walnut Park, as in most year-round schools, the changes could come midterm--after students have had months to bond with instructors who may be reassigned to meet needs that cannot even be imagined yet.
“I have a thousand questions no one seems able to answer,” said fourth-grade teacher Patricia Hernandez.
“What’s going to happen to my class? Will I have an English-only class full of Spanish-speaking kids? Hope not. I don’t speak Spanish,” she said. “Or will I have to run around like a chicken with its head cut off trying to get a horrible combination of grades and languages through their curriculum?”
“Should I hold on to materials I bought out of my own pocket like staples, pens and folders” for some future class assignment? she asked. “Or hand them out to the class I have now?”
At a recent staff meeting presided over by Urbina and Saenz, first-grade teacher Linda Smith summed up the major concern among instructors with a blunt question: “Does the district have an immersion plan ready to go, or will we have to wing it?”
Urbina nodded in the affirmative. Saenz shook her head in the negative.
In fact, the district concocted a so-called draft contingency plan in June. But Urbina said it lacks crucial details.
“It’s labeled a ‘contingency plan,’ but I see it as only a rough estimate of what might happen,” he said, holding a copy of the document. “It doesn’t go far enough.”
The impending switch from bilingual education is controversial throughout the community, which likes the school the way it is now.
Unlike many other schools, Walnut Park’s bilingual education programs are actually something to brag about--65% of its third-graders have already moved into English-only programs.
That’s not the only reason the school has had extraordinary support and participation from parents. The school will soon have the first “wilderness park” developed for the inner city by the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy. Also this year, Oracle Corp. donated 102 computers and a bungalow to house sophisticated computer labs.
Typical of the mood in the surrounding neighborhood were clients at the nearby Julie’s Beauty Salon.
Sitting regally in a barber’s chair as Walnut Park students streamed past the open door on their way home, 28-year-old Luis Falcon said: “I don’t like this new law one bit. I have two kids at Walnut Park and I’m going to ask for waivers for both. I’ll drive them to another school myself if I have to so they get bilingual education.”
“Me, too,” said owner Julie Valenzuela. “My son’s grades went way down this year because he is being taught by a teacher who speaks only English.”
Mindful of the alarm bells going off around the community, Urbina has decided to hold a town hall meeting at the school in late August. Notices of the event were carried home on Thursday.
At that meeting, “We’ll present a comprehensive comparison of the way we teach now and the way things will be when the new law takes effect, and what it all means for their children,” Urbina said. “People will also be reminded of the power of the vote, and voter initiatives, and of how things can change overnight.
“And I plan to tell the people that although we have never had to deal with changes on this scale before, they should trust us to put together the very best program we can.”