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California and the West

Loophole Lets Schools Delay Prop. 227

Education: Two districts designate teacher training day Friday as official start of school, thus avoiding Sunday implementation deadline.

July 30, 1998|TINA NGUYEN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SANTA ANA — Under the gun to comply with a voter-approved state law that virtually dismantles bilingual education, two Orange County school districts are using a loophole in the policy to delay by weeks--or even months--the process of implementing English-only programs.

Proposition 227 is scheduled to take effect with classes that start next week. But the Santa Ana Unified and Anaheim City districts have moved up the official start of the school year to Friday, a teacher training day, in a maneuver that temporarily exempts the first wave of classes from the English-immersion program.

"It has everybody's head spinning," Robert Balen, a Santa Ana Unified School District board member, said of curriculum changes in the system in which about 38,000 students have limited English skills. "We're talking about a major, major redo of our approach to education in our district, and you don't do that overnight."

State education officials said they have fielded numerous inquiries from districts statewide about when a school term should begin.

"Lots of districts are grappling with this," said Suanna Gilman-Ponce, a Proposition 227 consultant for the state Department of Education.

The Santa Ana and Anaheim school districts are not out of line by making these interpretations, she said.

Although it is not unusual to begin a school year with a teacher training day, other state officials warned that any district altering its school calendar to avoid the law is breaking the education codes. But district officials have some discretion, they said.

"If it is a conscious and willful attempt, then that begs the question of whether that district is in violation of the" law, said Bill Lucia, executive director of the State Board of Education.

Although many of the year-round schools throughout Orange and Los Angeles counties are expected to comply with Monday's deadline, the actions of the Santa Ana and Anaheim districts underscore the difficulty facing schools with a high concentration of non-English-speaking students.

Santa Ana and Anaheim administrators said they had set their school schedules months before the June election. What they had been wrangling with in recent weeks was how to interpret what constitutes the first day of school.

Now part of the California education codes, Proposition 227 officially takes effect Sunday. Bilingual education classes that begin after that day are required to replace all native-language instruction with an English-only "immersion" program. The initiative, approved by a 61%-39% margin at the polls, seeks to end the practice of teaching students all subjects in their native language.

In Santa Ana Unified, 22 year-round schools are scheduled to start classes Monday. Originally, officials feared that they had to fully comply with the regulations by that day.

But by marking the official start of school as this Friday's teacher training day, the district exempts this batch of students from abiding by the controversial new regulations.

"It is not an instructional day for students, but nevertheless, it's [the] official day," Santa Ana Unified Supt. Al Mijares said Wednesday.

The Anaheim City School District, which consists of 22 year-round elementary campuses, is taking the same approach.

Although a quarter of the students start school Monday, teachers begin working this week--freeing the district from immediate compliance with the law. They will not have to fully implement new English-only programs until November, when the next wave of students begins school.

Santa Ana has less time. It must overhaul its programs for all limited-English students by September. To abide by Proposition 227, the district anticipates spending $2.5 million on new English-language textbooks that have yet to arrive. Instructors must be trained to teach students in five different levels of English fluency.

Mijares said the Santa Ana district is not trying to defy the voters' mandate, but stressed that it wants to take care in perfecting a program that will help students learn English. The extra time will help them do that, he said.

"At least we have several more weeks," he said. "But to expect us to convert [immediately], that is not very realistic and neither is it wise. When you've been offering primary-language instruction for more than two decades, the whole thing doesn't turn on a dime."

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