School to change way it teaches Spanish speakers
Ventura County Star 
March 21, 2005

Erinn Hutkin,

The walls of Laura Hernandez's bright third-grade classroom are filled with charts listing months of the year in Spanish. Textbooks shout "Matematicas" from hard-backed green covers.

"Muy bien," Hernandez tells a little girl, newly arrived from Mexico, helping the child after class.

Desks in Hernandez's room at Art Haycox School hold math books written in English in addition to the Spanish texts.

She lets bilingual students follow along in Spanish books if they get lost as she teaches in English.

But everything changes next year.

"Next year, some of them will understand what I am talking about," she said. "Some of them won't."

For the fourth year, the Oxnard campus has been labeled low-performing under the No Child Left Behind Act.

Must make changes under law

Next year, as it slides into year five, the school must make changes under the law.

Nearly 90 percent of Haycox's 840 K-5 students speak Spanish as their first language. The plan calls for switching from mainly Spanish to English instruction with the hope of boosting scores on state tests taken in English.

The changes sparked mixed reaction. Administrators are hopeful the plan will raise scores. Yet some teachers, like Hernandez, say the switch may prompt them to leave. Meanwhile, some Spanish-speaking parents worry they will be unable to help kids with English-based school work.

Until test results show the impact of the changes, there is little to do but keep working and wait.

"It doesn't mean that Spanish isn't still valuable," said Principal Jan Lee. "We're going to need to use the Spanish judiciously. ... We're not doing anything that research doesn't demonstrate success."

A coach will watch teachers

In addition to switching languages, a coach will watch teachers in classrooms next year, showing them how to design lessons and work with vocabulary and concepts the students understand.

Next year, the day will begin with an hour of English instruction for all students.

About $100,000 worth of textbooks in English is being purchased.

Instead of entering mainstream classes, immigrant students will attend a newcomers program off campus.

Even with extra English, said Hernandez, school may be the only place students practice. Many leave campus and walk through neighborhoods where Spanish music blares from cars, where shopkeepers don't speak English.

They often live in $1,000-a-month apartments with other families, where kitchens are shared and Spanish programming plays on TV.

As a teacher, Hernandez sees families whose American Dream involves returning to Mexico. The border is close enough to cross for weeks each Christmas, to send money to relatives, to build homes to which they will one day return.

Many of her students are products of homes where parents pick crops to put food on the table, where the average mother or father has a sixth-grade education, where a vision of a better life means seeing their children work at department stores instead of bent-back in the fields.

She said some teachers -- the most experienced -- may move to other schools. Some don't agree with the change. Others are unsure they want to try a program that may not work.

Hernandez does not know if she will stay.

Best way to teach English

After 15 years at the school, Hernandez says she feels at home, but next year, she may see more demands -- more testing, coaches observing the classroom -- ideas that are ultimately good, but stressful.

"Everyone wants the students to learn English," she said. "That is the ultimate goal ... but which is the best way to teach them the language?"

There is debate on the best way to teach English. The U.S. English Foundation points to the California English Language Development test. It shows kids testing at early or advanced levels of the language jumped from 25 to 47 percent between 2001 and 2005.

"Almost all the research on children shows they pick up the language like a sponge," said Rob Toonkel, the group's director of communication. "If you transition slowly ... toward more English, you have kids who are going to succeed."

But Denis O'Leary, an education adviser for the League of United Latin American Citizens, said students in bilingual classrooms need four to seven years to become fluent. He said an English-only education may teach the language, but kids could lose academics in the process.

"It takes time to learn a language," he said.

Yet Juan Ayala, a Haycox second-grade teacher, said English will not solve everything.

If they learn English, he said, Haycox kids will still live in crumbling homes with stale air.

Many will still see drug, alcohol or physical abuse.

Their parents will still work in the fields, some remaining illiterate.

They will still attend a campus, he said, with inadequate playgrounds, broken water fountains and no trees.

"Just because you speak English does not mean anything is going to change," he said. "What is going to be improved unless we actually address the issue of housing, healthcare for families, substance abuse, bad nutrition. ...? I hope our grades go up, but it's not going to solve anything."

Plan based partly on an audit

Next year's plan is based partly on an audit from the county Superintendent of Schools Office, a study compiling classroom observation with surveys of Haycox parents, teachers and students.

The audit was performed after Haycox was labeled in need of improvement by the state for the fourth year.

The label comes when schools fail to meet No Child Left Behind requirements. The act says a certain percentage of kids at each campus must test "proficient" each year in English and math. The goal is 100 percent proficiency by 2014.

Last year, 16 percent of kids at each U.S. school were to test proficient in math, while 13.6 percent were expected to do so in English. Haycox missed the mark by about one percentage point, and just 12 percent of English learners and Latino students passed language portions of tests.

Haycox's principal, Lee, is optimistic the plan will work next year, but optimism does not stop her from worrying as she drifts to sleep at night.

"Oh, please," she thinks to herself, "let this work."

There are 800 kids depending on her and her staff. For Lee, that may be the biggest pressure of all.