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Santa Ana Limiting Bilingual Education

District begins to tighten screening on who gets waivers to be taught in two languages.

October 06, 2003|Jennifer Mena | Times Staff Writer

Five years after Californians voted to rid public classrooms of bilingual education, officials in the largely Spanish-speaking Santa Ana Unified School District are beginning to limit which students qualify as exceptions to the rule.

The screening to determine who can receive bilingual education is being done by the superintendent himself. Al Mijares said he thinks he's the only school superintendent in California to personally review requests for bilingual education waivers.

At the same time, and for reasons district officials don't understand, the number of students seeking bilingual education has dropped about 40% this year compared with last.

Proposition 227, overwhelmingly approved in 1998, requires all California schoolchildren to be taught in English but allows parents to seek waivers for their children. Before the measure was adopted, about 29% of schoolchildren statewide received bilingual education; today, about 10% have received waivers and still are instructed partly in their native language.

In Santa Ana, weaning from bilingual education was such a hot-button issue that school board member Nativo V. Lopez, an ardent supporter of bilingual education, was recalled seven months ago, and the school board is now roundly behind the use of English in the classroom.

"Young people need better skills in writing and reading," said Rob Richardson, who replaced Lopez on the board. "One way to do that is to follow the intent of Proposition 227."

Of the district's 62,000 students, 68% are English learners. The school board, concerned about low test scores, believes that immersing them in English is the best strategy.

In the five years since the passage of Proposition 227, virtually every parent who applied for a waiver received it from school principals, said Howard Bryan, director of the district's bilingual education office.

Last year, 6,388 waivers were granted. This year, the number dropped inexplicably to 3,844 waiver requests.

Of those, 3,012 students previously taught bilingually were automatically given waivers to continue in the program. But Mijares reviewed each request for kindergarten students seeking bilingual education; he approved 716 and rejected 116.

Ron Unz, the Silicon Valley entrepreneur who drafted Proposition 227, said he believes the Santa Ana district had until now been ignoring the law perhaps more blatantly than any other district, a charge school officials deny. The Santa Ana district "is now following the intent of the law," said Unz, who contributed $80,000 to the recall effort. "It only took six years and a recall election."

Most school districts in California don't offer bilingual education programs, which are provided only if a district receives at least 20 valid waiver requests for any grade level.

In Santa Ana, Mijares said he decided to personally review bilingual waivers because he wants to ensure that children are being placed in the proper program.

"When you look at the steep challenges that we face, it forces a system to be more vigilant," Mijares said.

Parents, some of whom speak little English, must now demonstrate a "special need" to get their children into bilingual education, he said. Those parents who merely wrote that they wanted their children to be bilingual were rejected.

Many Spanish-speaking parents cite their inability to help their children if the schoolwork is in entirely English, a reason that was accepted this year as a special need, he said.

"We are grappling with what are real education needs. We understand what a physical and emotional need is. Parents want to help their children with homework," said Bryan, who oversees the program. "We are grappling with that. We accept it this year but we want to further consider whether it's truly an educational need."

Maria Rosa Ibarra, a member of the district's parent advisory committee, said decisions on bilingual education are being made by school officials who don't know the child's background and home environment.

The new policy "means a parent who knows their child can no longer have a say, and the control has been given to people who deal with thousands of students who do not know the children," Ibarra said.

Mijares said officials will review the progress of bilingual students and make changes as necessary to existing policies.At least one school board member, Rosemarie Avila, is not convinced Santa Ana is doing enough to review cases and enforce Proposition 227.

"We've become much more analytical," said Mijares. "We are now making more careful and frequent assessment. It's an ongoing labor. It is part of an evolutionary process."

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