English and Spanish

Teresa Sermersheim works with students Jonathan Garcia, right,

In a state where one out of 10 school-age children are learning
English, the battle continues over how best to educate young
immigrants or children of immigrants.
Schools and districts throughout the state have taken varied
approaches to educating English language learners.
In a state where one out of 10 school-age children are learning English, the battle continues over how best to educate young immigrants or children of immigrants.

Schools and districts throughout the state have taken varied approaches to educating English language learners.

At some schools, parents have favored bilingual education programs, where reading, writing and most of math are taught in children’s primary language and social studies and science are taught in English.

Others have looked to structured English immersion, in which classes are overwhelmingly in English, but teachers help children in their native language if they need it. And finally, others have leaned towards mainstream English classes, where English language learners sit next to English-only or fully bilingual children and are only pulled out during English instruction, to help develop vocabulary and pronunciation.

These programs have been around for years, but the passage of Proposition 227, a controversial bill passed in 1998, has meant that English language learners are not automatically placed in bilingual classes. They are only placed in such classes if their parents sign a waiver.

“Essentially, one of the positive outcomes has been a real reinforcement of parent choice,” said Katy Stonebloom, coordinator of the English language development program at Aromas School, where 30 percent of students are considered English learners. While some were born in the United States and others immigrated here, the majority are Spanish-speakers whose parents have opted to enroll them in bilingual education classes. Many parents say they view it as a good way to stay connected to what is going on in the classroom and help their kids do the well in school.

Maria Aguilar is an immigrant from Mexico who has lived in the United States since 1988. Despite the time she has spent here, she speaks little English, the principle reason she decided to enroll her three oldest children in a bilingual program at Marguerite Maze Middle School in Hollister. But her youngest daughter, 5-year-old Jasmine, a first-grader at Gabilan Hills Elementary, is in a mainstream English class. And Aguilar can’t help worrying that she won’t be able to help Jasmine with her homework in English.

“I went to meet with her teacher, and she told me Jasmine was doing well,” said Aguilar, 33. “She told me she was very cooperative, quiet and a good listener in the classroom, but that she needed to work on her reading, writing and math. What’s good about that, I have no idea.”

When her other children, Mario, 13, Angelo and Alvira, both 11, were struggling in school, she was able to intervene right away, all because their homework was mostly in Spanish, she said.

“I met with their teachers, they told me exactly where their weak areas were, and I helped them improve their grades,” she recalled.

Aguilar is active in all of her children’s schools and frequently volunteers in the classroom. But another concern she has is how she will continue to help her kids as they acquire more English and are gradually mainstreamed into regular classes.

The worry is common among parents with limited English skills. Parents often feel they will be cut off from their children’s education once the students are put in a classroom where the majority of the instruction is in English, said Lonna Martinez, coordinator of English language learners at the Hollister School District. However, she added, parents need to realize that steady progress is expected with the long-term goal that after five years in any kind of English-learner development program kids can speak, read and write English.

“You don’t want them to languish in a bilingual program,” Martinez said. “That’s the whole point of Proposition 227 is to make sure students are learning English quickly.”

Other parents favor almost total immersion, saying that mor exposure to the new language is better for the children’s academic success. At Burnett Elementary in Morgan Hill, for example, 38 percent of students are considered English language learners. But none are in a bilingual class because no parents have signed the requisite waiver, said Teresa Sermersheim, a literacy coach and English language development coordinator at the school.

Instead, every morning, kids do what is known as the language arts switch, when they shuffle classrooms. The English language learners just starting out in the language head to one room, while more proficient English language learners head to another. Native English speakers head to yet another classroom, depending on their reading level.

“What happens is students who are above-grade level read literature above grade level, while those who need more help get it,” said Sermersheim. “It’s a real benefit for every single student.”

While most of the English language learners at the school are Spanish-speakers, others speak Cantonese, Vietnamese or other Asian languages. And because there is such a small number of them, those children are automatically placed in an immersion program. If their parents want them to be in a bilingual program, they have to transfer to another school or possibly another district where there are at least 20 children in the same grade who speak the language. That’s the minimum required by law before any California school has to hire a teacher who speaks the language in demand.

But there is yet another approach that some schools in South Valley have taken to educate English language learners. One such school is Las Animas School in Gilroy, which, since 2000, has applied the dual immersion method in numerous classes, and with stellar results, said Silvia Reyes, principal of Las Animas.

Everyday, kids in nine of the 24 classes at the school are exposed to an equal amount of English as Spanish in their classrooms. In one classroom, they encounter an English-speaking teacher along with posters, books and other materials in English. Later in the day, they sit in a classroom covered with posters in Spanish and listen to a Spanish-speaking teacher.

“It’s like going into a different country and being bombarded with another language,” said Reyes. The school is open to anyone, but has a strict rule about maintaining one third English-only students, one third Spanish-only and one-third bilingual students. Reyes said the waiting list is growing daily.

In addition, the school has been taken off the state watch list where it had been put for low test scores. Reyes says the school now boasts higher scores than ever before.

“We are challenging kids by teaching them another language, but at the same time teaching them the basic concepts in their own language,” said Reyes.

Parents, too, have equally glowing things to say about Las Animas. Sharon Watkins put her daughter, Allita, 8, in the school five years ago and has watched as she quickly acquired Spanish. Learning the language made her more confident and also helped her make new friends on the playground, said Watkins, a Gilroy resident.

“I always felt we were at a disadvantage in America speaking just one language,” she said. “This opens up a new world to her and increases the kind of opportunities she can have in life.”

No matter the method of learning English, many agree that children are more successful when they learn the basics in their native languages.

“The older generation of Americans who came from Europe and did the sink-and-swim method often say ‘I did fine, why can’t they?'” said Martinez. The difference between them and many of the young immigrants learning English in classrooms all over the state is the older generation never acquired literacy in their native language, making the task of reading, writing and comprehension twice as hard, she said.

“A lot of students, if you throw them in to try to read in a language they don’t understand, you’re really giving them a disadvantage,” said Martinez.

The level of parental education, the extent of support they give their children in homework and interactions with the teacher have a big impact on how long it takes a child to learn English, said Jose Anaya, a second grade teacher at Calaveras Elementary in Hollister.

“If there is support at home, kids will learn better,” said Anaya, who has taught bilingual education at the school since 2000.

Anaya, himself an immigrant from Mexico, says he is glad the waiver option exists because many kids would be lost if placed in an English-only class.

“They will struggle; yes, they’ll survive, but it will be a very traumatic experience for them,” he said. Instead, he favors the bilingual education approach.

“Some parents would like to turn the switch on and have their kids learn English within a year, but that’s impossible,” he said.

Deciding between the array of choices can be tough for parents. That’s where English learner advisory committees come in. These groups are made up of parents and educators who help newcomer parents navigate the sea of choices and are also required at any school with more than 20 English learners.

“The key to success of any new students is finding out what their educational experience has been,” said Stonebloom. “It’s about connecting with the families and sitting down with them to find out what their needs are.”

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