Four years, no answers
California's Prop. 227, akin to Amendment 31, spurs varied reactions
By Holly Yettick,
Rocky Mountain News
October 8, 2002
LOS ANGELES - In Sylvia Cruz's first-grade class, children write with plumas in
In Deborah Herrera's first- and second-grade class, children write with pens in
In Cruz's class at Cerritos Elementary just north of Los Angeles in Glendale,
Spanish is the main ingredient of the
instruction during half the school day.
In Herrera's class at San Juan Elementary an hour south of Los Angeles in Orange
County, Spanish is less an ingredient than a subtle spice sprinkled sparingly
when truly needed.
As different as they might seem, these classes do have something in common. Both
are educating English learners under the guidelines of Proposition 227.
This 1998 California law is nearly identical to Amendment 31, a constitutional
amendment Colorado voters will consider next month.
Under both laws, English learners are to spend no more than a year in classes
like Herrera's - where the majority of the
instruction is in English - before transitioning into mainstream classes.
Both laws also permit waivers that allow English learners to be educated in
classes like Cruz's - where children
learn to read and write in Spanish.
What's still up for debate - four years later - is whether Proposition 227 is
Alice Callaghan, a Los Angeles community activist, helped inspire the
initiative's creation when she led a bilingual education boycott in 1996 by
parents at Las Familias del Pueblo, the community center she founded.
She has seen change but is still waiting for more.
"It's a piece of the school reform effort," she said of Proposition 227. "No one
thing does it."
Less bilingual education
At least one thing can be said for certain about Proposition 227: It has
decreased the number of students in bilingual education, where students are
taught in their native language.
In 1998, about a third of the state's 1.5 million English-language learners were
enrolled in bilingual programs. That figure has since declined to 11 percent.
The reduction in bilingual enrollment has not occurred evenly throughout the
state. That's because school officials have had
radically different reactions to the ballot initiative.
Take Cerritos and San Juan elementaries.
Separated by 60 miles of Southern California freeway, the schools serve similar
populations. But their reactions to Proposition 227 could hardly have been more
Capistrano Unified - home to San Juan - had already planned to curtail bilingual
education when Proposition 227 passed, said Susan McGill, executive director of
elementary operational services for the district.
A special alternative school waiver allowed one school to offer "dual language
immersion," a program where English speakers learn Spanish and Spanish speakers
But at all other schools, English language instruction was embraced so
thoroughly, teachers were even given several
hundred dollars apiece to replace the Spanish-language posters on their
"They come to the school to learn English," said Maria Ayala, when asked why she
chose English immersion for her kindergarten-age child.
By contrast, a Rocky Mountain News interview with Joanna Junge, the Glendale
district's curriculum, intercultural education and instructional services
coordinator, began with this statement:
"I am not a fan of Ron Unz."
In the wake of Proposition 227, which Unz initiated and funded, Junge estimates
the district lost about half its bilingual education students to classes where
English learners are taught mostly in English. But half remained in bilingual
The district made it easy to stay by granting waivers.
In California, more than 167,000 waivers have been granted. Only English
learners who wish to be taught in their native language must obtain waivers. As
long as instruction is in English, other methods of teaching non-English
speakers have been allowable without waivers, including English as a Second
Language - the dominant method used in Colorado. In ESL classes, students get
intense English instruction - in English - for an hour or so a day but spend
most of their time in standard classes.
Waivers also are allowed under Colorado's Amendment 31, but, unlike in
California, parents have 10 years to sue if they decide they have been wrongly
granted the type of waiver permitted for children with special physical or
Unz added this legal consequence to curb what he views as waiver abuse in
California and Arizona. He also wanted to protect the rights of immigrant
parents who might be too unfamiliar with the legal system or too scared to sue
the district until they have spent more time in the U.S.
Worries about waivers
At Cerritos, officials say they make waivers easy to obtain if that's what
But even there, teachers said some parents have hesitated to request bilingual
education because they feared signing waivers would mark them as illegal
immigrants, jeopardizing their status in the country. Others have shrunk from
the 30-day waiting period for granting waivers to non-English speakers under age
Difficulty getting a waiver is one of the most frequent concerns heard by the
complaints department of the California Department of Education, said Laurie
Burnham, a manager in the department.
However, researcher Christine Rossell concluded in a study this year that most
parents have easy access to waivers.
At San Juan, traditional bilingual education is listed as an option in the
information parents receive. But it is not really an option because it no longer
exists. Not enough parents request it.
Under Proposition 227, schools are required to offer bilingual education only if
at least 20 students at a grade level ask for it.
Parent Antonia Mendoza said she didn't know she could ask for bilingual
education. She said she wished her younger child - now a fifth-grader at San
Juan - could have learned to read and write in Spanish like her older child, now
in high school.
After hearing similar opinions expressed by several other parents, San Juan
Principal Silvia Pule said the school could offer after-school Spanish classes
for students already making good progress in English.
But she said similar classes fell by the wayside for lack of interest soon after
Proposition 227 passed.
In California, as in many other states, the younger a child is, the more likely
he is to be a newcomer to the English language.
At San Juan, many of these students end up in Deborah Herrera's
first/second-grade "newcomers" class - San Juan's version of the temporary
sheltered English class Proposition 227 describes. There, they learn English,
along with arithmetic, science and other academic subjects.
The small number of older newcomers at the school go to mainstream classes,
where they receive extra help with English.
Most of Herrera's students transition to mainstream classes after less than one
school year. Those who stay longer often have problems well beyond their lack of
"It took him two years to write his name," she says of one student.
Opponents of the Colorado initiative say the one-year immersion plan would push
English learners prematurely into mainstream classes, burdening teachers and
slowing the pace of the class.
California teachers feared this, too.
But that's not what San Juan teacher Richard Broberg encountered after
Proposition 227 passed.
The 36-year teaching veteran and union activist not only voted against
Proposition 227, he also campaigned against it.
Now, if he could, he would go back and change his vote. He said Proposition 227,
combined with other reforms instituted during that period, have improved his
students' English skills. And, he said, mainstreaming kids sooner rather than
later has had no impact on what he teaches in class or when.
That's because children in any one class have a wide variety of skills. Just as
he's always done, Broberg groups his students into small reading and math groups
- based on where they are and what they can do.
To speak Spanish or not
Opponents in California and Colorado have claimed the initiative bans teachers
from speaking Spanish. But it requires only that instruction is "overwhelmingly"
in English. Even at San Juan, which has embraced the Proposition 227 philosophy,
Herrera does punctuate her explanations with Spanish, especially when she gets
multiple sets of blank looks.
"What do we learn from the thermometer?" she asked one morning several weeks
ago, holding up a vocabulary flashcard. "Si esta caliente o frio" - "If it's hot
Herrera believes Proposition 227 has helped children learn English faster and
better without depriving them of speaking Spanish.
Take fifth-grader Adriana Avilez. Two years ago she arrived at San Juan from
Mexico. She learned English in about a year from her all-English class. But she
still remembers Spanish.
"She had to speak to me in English so I would learn English," Adriana said of
But Sylvia Cruz, the first-grade teacher at Cerritos, said that's not what she
observed the year she taught a class that combined 12 students who had waivers
allowing bilingual education and eight who did not.
"The kids in structured immersion weren't any better in English than my kids in
the bilingual program," she said.
Many parents with children in structured immersion - taught primarily in English
- requested bilingual waivers after observing the class, she said.
Though Cruz's bilingual education students learn to read and write in Spanish,
English is emphasized at an earlier age than it was before Proposition 227. On
the walls of her classroom, English-language papers about the color red hang
next to the Spanish alphabet. Everything from the color chart to the calendar is
in both English and Spanish.
"In the morning, how do we speak?" Cruz asks her students as they return from
"Spanish," they chorus.
"What do we do after lunch?"
"English!" they reply, as Cruz opens an English language picture book called
Chato's Kitchen and prepares to read out loud.
Cruz and other teachers at Cerritos are convinced that their way is best for
And in a 2000 report by "Californians Together," both Cerritos and San Juan are
identified as examples of schools that do a good job with the English language
instruction models embraced by their staffs.
But as is true in the state as a whole, it's hard to say which is having more
Cerritos has a higher score on the Academic Performance Index - the Stanford 9
test-based rating California uses to measure the achievement of its schools.
But since the initiative passed, San Juan's index has shown much more growth.
"I'm not sure we're going to see the final score of this," San Juan teacher
Broberg said, "until these kids are actually grown."
yettickh@RockyMountainNews.com or (303) 892-5082