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Bilingual Law Doesn't Add Up to Teacher : She Defends Use of English

June 11, 1986|BILL BILLITER | Times Staff Writer

The Sacramento battle over the future of bilingual education may be lengthy. (Part I, Page 3.)

When you're only 7 years old, it's scary to be different.

And so it could have been frightening for little Daniel Granados last week to return to his second-grade class in Santa Ana's Washington Elementary School after several months out of the county and find that his fellow Spanish-speaking students were all performing nicely in English.

Daniel speaks and understands very little English. But he didn't sit puzzled on his first day back in class as the teacher gave math instruction in English.

Daniel sat at a small table with his math workbook, which is in English. Teacher's aide Patricia Soper sat with him and translated the instructions in Spanish. Nelson Zavaleta, 8, who also has trouble with English, sat beside Daniel. With very few questions and answers in Spanish, the two youngsters were quickly immersed in their workbook.

The two boys soon filled their books with addition and subtraction solutions. Daniel and Nelson seemed very comfortable with the exercise.

"Daniel and his family have been in Riverside for several months, and this is his first day back in our class," said the teacher, Bettie Bryan Howser. "He's still having trouble with English, and so Mrs. Soper will work with him."

Soper, a native of Mexico City, speaks both Spanish and English fluently. But like Howser, Soper believes strongly in pushing non-English-speaking students to use English as quickly as possible.

Moving Quickly to English

"I try to get them to work in English as quickly as they can," Soper said. "If I just speak Spanish to them, they stay with that language. They don't move on."

Howser speaks some Spanish, but she admits that she's not very good in the language. She is, in fact, what the state calls "a waivered teacher"--an instructor in a predominantly limited-English speaking classroom who is not yet certified as bilingual.

Eighteen of the 33 students in Howser's classroom are what the state calls LEP, or limited-English proficient. Those 18 students speak and understand Spanish better than English. Most of the other 15 students in the class are from Latino homes, where Spanish is the household language, but they speak and understand English fairly well.

But in Bettie Howser's class, English predominates, and the students in the math class seemed to have no problems. Howser said the key reason is that she and her aide, Soper, work so well together. "If I ever passed my test in Spanish and became a full bilingual teacher, I would lose my teacher's aide," Howser said. "That's one of the bad things about how bilingual education is set up."

Since Howser is not a fluent Spanish speaker, she teaches her class almost exclusively in English. "When I see someone who doesn't understand, I get Pat to translate," she said. The result is thus more of what the state classifies as an English-as-a-second-language-type of class than a bilingual-education class. In the latter, the student's predominant language, such as Spanish, would be spoken by the teacher during the bulk of the instruction, with English interspersed.

Howser strongly supports helping non-English-speaking students with special academic help. But she is a critic of California's existing bilingual education law which requires a teacher to conduct much of the class in the students' native language. She also thinks that a bill by Assembly Speaker Willie Brown, scheduled for floor debate in Sacramento this week, would only continue what she calls "a much too rigid law." The bill would extend the life of California's bilingual education law for six more years.

Howser is co-chair of the waivered-teachers' committee of the Santa Ana Educators Assn. She and the committee chairwoman, Gloria Tuchman, went to Sacramento in April to testify against Brown's bill when it came up for debate in the Assembly Education Committee.

Santa Ana Unified School District is second only to Los Angeles Unified in the number of non-English-speaking students. For the past decade, Santa Ana's schools have grown each year by about 1,000 students, the vast majority of which are non-English-speaking Latino immigrants.

The California bilingual education law requires a bilingual teacher whenever there are at least 10 students in a class who speak a common language other than English. Santa Ana, with its huge influx of Spanish-speaking students, did not have enough of its teachers who are fluent in two languages to qualify, under state law, as bilingual. To continue their jobs, teachers like Howser had to sign agreements to take Spanish classes and classes in Hispanic culture.

"The test one has to pass to be certified as bilingual is very, very difficult," said Tuchman, who is also a newly elected school board member of Tustin Unified School District. "Many good teachers just can't pass that language test."

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