Leon Worden

Dismantling bilingual education is no simple task

By Leon Worden
Wednesday, July 22, 1998

arc Winger got some of his questions answered Monday, but not all. Winger, chief administrator of the Newhall School District, met with county education officials to discuss the emergency regulations being handed down by the state in the aftermath of last week's federal court decision allowing Prop. 227 to take effect.

Prop. 227, passed by voters June 2, says that English shall be the predominant language of instruction in California classrooms, effectively ending bilingual education.

It will have a profound impact in Newhall, where 900 of the district's 5,950 students have foreign language backgrounds and four of the schools — Old Orchard, Peachland, Wiley Canyon and Newhall — currently provide bilingual instruction.

Schools on a traditional calendar must make the switch to English effective August 2, but the brand-new regulations permit year-round schools like those in Newhall to hold off until January so the current semester isn't disrupted, Winger learned Monday.

"I think people assume it's a simple thing — just teach in English," Winger says. "It really isn't an issue in grades 3, 4 and 5, because (Newhall's limited-English speakers) are already working in English. Where it's difficult is in grades 1 and 2.

"In the former program we were teaching oral English (but) Spanish reading in grades 1 and 2 to develop the cognitive ability to read, to get them to make the sound-symbol relationship in the language they were most familiar with." Under 227, the district will have to develop oral and reading skills in English simultaneously, and that will be a challenge, Winger says. That doesn't mean Spanish will be eradicated from the classroom, however.

"The initiative says instruction must be 'overwhelmingly' in English, and the county is saying it's up to the individual district to interpret 'overwhelmingly.' The way I've been saying it is that in Newhall, English will be the language of instruction, and Spanish will be used to help understand concepts."

While the initiative allows parents to place their children in bilingual classrooms if they wish, and larger districts like Los Angeles and Glendale will offer them, Winger doesn't expect his district to have any. "I really don't think we'll have droves of Hispanic parents telling us they want us to teach in Spanish," Winger says. He hasn't yet had any questions from Spanish-speaking parents, but that may change when Winger distributes a notice about the new law at open houses this week.

In the new program, children will have a year to develop a "good working knowledge of English." Those who don't will be re-enrolled in an English immersion classroom for another year, Winger says.

But exactly what the law means by "immersion" classroom is unclear. "Does it mean a separate classroom, or is it speaking to (the qualifications of) the teacher in the classroom? We don't know yet."

The answers will come in the months ahead as the state Department of Education translates the new law into working policy. In the meantime, schools can be expected to experiment with a variety of techniques.

"We'll rely heavily on teacher expertise. My belief is that the wisdom is in the classroom teacher, and it always has been. From the top down, we'll be dealing with the legal issues, but as far as our approach to the curriculum, I think it will come from the teachers who have (taught English to non-native speakers) before. We'll be experimenting this year and even into next year, but eventually we'll develop a consistent approach."

Neither will the district have to reinvent the wheel. The instructional tools recommended in Prop. 227 — "Sheltered English" and various immersion methods — have been used to teach English "for about 20 years," Winger says.

Adding to the new-found flexibility in curriculum development is the decision by the state board this month to allow school districts to purchase whatever books they want over the next two years, whether or not they're on the state's "approved" list, to meet the requirements of the new law.

That's an expense the Newhall district will have to deal with, since the English language books haven't been ordered yet. But Winger says state superintendent Delaine Eastin is submitting a budget proposal for the needed materials this week, and with Gov. Pete Wilson's commitment to a big boost in education funding, Winger isn't overly worried about it.

Some uncharted waters lie ahead, but Winger is ready.

"I say let's get on with it. We're going to make it work. We just got done implementing multi-track. We needed something else to do."

    Leon Worden is The Signal's special sections editor.

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