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California and the West

Santa Barbara Schools Seek to End Bilingual Education

Language: In requesting state waiver, district cites lack of academic achievement by Latino students.

January 16, 1998|RICHARD LEE COLVIN and SCOTT HADLY | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

SANTA BARBARA — Driven by dissatisfaction with the faltering academic achievement of Latino students, the school board has become the fifth in California to seek to officially scrap its bilingual program in favor of one stressing lessons in English.

The board's unanimous vote came late Wednesday, at a raucous five-hour meeting that drew more than 600 parents, teachers and students and 110 speakers, the vast majority of whom objected to the decision.

The board must still seek a waiver of California's bilingual education policy from the State Board of Education. The state has readily granted waivers to four other districts, all in Orange County.

The Santa Barbara decision affects the 2,700 of the district's 6,000 students who are not fluent in English. It fuels the campaign to end bilingual education as the state's preferred method of instruction for the one in five students who lacks English proficiency. A statewide ballot initiative that would virtually abolish bilingual instruction is to be voted on in June.

The plan to teach all children in English has created tension across Santa Barbara. Opponents accused board members of racism or even genocide during the month it was under discussion.

Leading up to the board meeting, about 350 children boycotted their classes, gathering at a community center instead.

"The board in their vote . . . continued their arrogance toward the very people they serve, which are parents and kids," said Ruben Rey, a community activist whose children have attended bilingual classes.

Although Santa Barbara would be only the fifth to get a state waiver, more than half the districts in California with students not fluent in English do not provide them with help in their native language.

"I understand the emotional angst of those who didn't want this change, I really, really do," said board President Fred Rifkin.

But, he added, for every study supporting bilingual methods, another debunks them. In addition, board members have what they believe is powerful evidence that Santa Barbara's bilingual program is failing.

Basic skills test scores in the elementary grades show that Latino students are lagging. That achievement gap widens as Latino students progress through school. Only 14% of Latinos in the Santa Barbara district take the SAT, which most four-year colleges require for admission, and their overall scores are 80 points below those of African American students--the next highest group. Of those who went through the bilingual program, not a single student last year scored above 1,000 out of a possible 1,600 points on the college entrance exam.

"With that sort of data, what we could say in Santa Barbara was that this was a program that was not working and it was time for a radical change," said Lanny Ebenstein, a longtime board member who spearheaded the move.

Rey conceded that the current bilingual program needs improvement. But he said the program could not be evaluated fairly because it had changed frequently in the past 23 years and many teachers hired for it were not fluent in Spanish.

"They are scapegoating bilingual education," he said.

Board members said children will not be allowed to simply flounder in English-only classes.

Times staff writer Nick Anderson contributed to this story.

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