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Santa Ana Ups Waiver Bar

October 12, 2003

Santa Ana's schools chief now reviews every request for a bilingual-education waiver. Superintendent Al Mijares has turned down a fraction of the requests from kindergarten parents who want their children in bilingual classes, rather than English immersion.

Yet, as Times staff writer Jennifer Mena reported last week, that administrative change pales in comparison with a seismic parental shift: Mijares' job was made easier by a 40% drop this fall in the number of requests for bilingual education.

Santa Ana voters this year recalled board member Nativo V. Lopez. Critics claimed that Lopez, an ardent believer in bilingual education, was illegally urging parents to seek the waivers and thus hurting the children's education. The abrupt falloff in requests this year could lend credence to those accusations. Conversely, it might be the result of parents who prefer bilingual education but fear the disapproval of a new regime.

Critics were overly harsh about bilingual waivers in Santa Ana, claiming that activists such as Lopez were trying to completely undo Proposition 227. Last year, about 15% of the district's English learners were in bilingual education, a few percentage points above the statewide average of 10%. Compare that with Placentia-Yorba Linda, where the figure was 36%, or San Diego, with 25%.

Studies on the effects of Proposition 227 have been inconclusive. The topic has been too mired in divisive politics to yield objective, useful research. Certainly, the ability to learn English with full academic fluency is crucial for college, and generally speaking, younger children learn a new language more easily and thoroughly than older students.

The concern is whether students with limited English skills fall behind in other subjects while they're still learning the language because they don't fully understand what the teacher is saying. That's particularly important in math, where each new skill builds on the ones learned before.

Santa Ana's administrators so far are handling this complex situation with sensitivity -- and better adherence to Proposition 227, which sets out strict limits on waivers. No one landed with an ax on waivers; in fact, all students who had waivers last year got renewals. The district also approved most of the requests from parents of incoming kindergartners. But Mijares turned down new parents whose only reason for wanting bilingual education was to keep their children fluent in their home language. That's a worthy goal, but there are other ways to achieve it, especially since the district offers dual-immersion programs.

Placentia-Yorba Linda recently adopted a similarly reasonable rule, requiring children to go through 30 days of English immersion before granting a waiver, as mandated by Proposition 227. School districts should work on a program to educate parents about the rules of the proposition. And parents should be willing to be amazed by what 30 days of English classes can accomplish in a kindergartner.

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