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Bilingual Classes Tap U.S. Funds

Once excluded, districts with limited-English learners apply for literacy grants.

March 29, 2004|Fred Alvarez | Times Staff Writer

The way Denis O'Leary saw it, California's Reading First program was leaving too many children behind -- mostly poor and immigrant students, those who would benefit most from the federally funded literacy campaign.

So the Oxnard-area teacher and school board trustee lent his name last year to a lawsuit that has helped reshape the reading program, ensuring that children in some of the state's poorest districts have access to millions of dollars once largely cut off from bilingual classrooms.

As a result of a settlement in the lawsuit and a new state law, bilingual classrooms in California now have priority to tap $13.6 million in Reading First funds, money that will be used to boost reading achievement for limited English speakers from Sacramento to San Ysidro.

Just last week in the Oxnard School District, where O'Leary sits on the school board, trustees unanimously voted to apply for at least $1.6 million a year in Reading First money, more than half of which would be earmarked for students in bilingual settings.

"That's money that would not have been available to them before," said O'Leary, a bilingual teacher in a neighboring district. "Finally, we are able to offer equal access to education to all children in the state."

Oxnard is not alone. In the Los Angeles Unified School District, officials have applied for $2.2 million a year to bring the Spanish-language version of Reading First to thousands of bilingual students. And in San Diego County, officials in the San Ysidro School District have asked to add 34 bilingual classrooms to the district's annual Reading First grant.

A chief component of the Bush administration's No Child Left Behind Act, Reading First was launched in 2002 with a nationwide goal of pushing every child to reading proficiency by the end of the third grade.

The program showers nearly $1 billion a year on schools across the country to run programs that use proven curricula and teaching methods to support and improve reading instruction in grades K-3. The money is used to pay for materials, professional development, literacy coaches and student assessments.

In California, where the first two years of funding totaled about $280 million, state education officials earmarked the money for high-poverty schools with low reading performance.

But they mandated that funding go only to classrooms using state-adopted English-language materials. That move, advocates said, effectively excluded bilingual programs, where teachers do initial reading instruction in Spanish.

The decision prompted the lawsuit aimed at forcing a funding change. And it spurred legislation, signed into law in October, prohibiting the exclusion of those programs from the Reading First campaign.

The law required the California Department of Education to amend its Reading First plan to allow bilingual classrooms to use Spanish-language translations of approved materials.

"The entire education community was opposed to this policy," said Shelly Spiegel-Coleman, president of Californians Together, the statewide coalition that spearheaded the suit. "After two years of exclusion, the children who need help learning to read the most are finally going to get the help they deserve."

Karen Steentofte, chief counsel for the state Board of Education, said there was no intent to exclude bilingual classrooms from the federal program.

Rather, she said, officials had set out to ensure that participating school districts complied with California's federally approved Reading First plan, which called for the use of state-adopted instruction materials. Those materials had been available only in English when the state crafted its Reading First plan, Steentofte said.

"There was never an outright prohibition against bilingual classrooms," Steentofte said. "Any classroom [where teachers] used the materials in English for 2 1/2 hours a day could be funded, and some bilingual programs did that."

But bilingual education advocates said most programs did not.

Nearly 1,500 schools across the state operate bilingual classrooms despite passage in 1998 of a voter initiative that mandated English instruction and sharply limited bilingual programs. The initiative, Proposition 227, allows students to learn in their native languages only when their parents ask for waivers from the law.

Last year, nearly 150,000 waivers were granted in California, which means thousands of classrooms continue to offer bilingual instruction. Advocates said teachers in many school districts refused to alter their bilingual curriculum just to qualify for Reading First grants.

Mary Hernandez, an education rights attorney who helped bring the lawsuit, said she believed education officials had been pressing a political agenda when they restricted the funding.

"To me, it was very obvious that they thought this would be a good occasion to try to press their political preference for English-only classrooms," Hernandez said.

Steentofte said such allegations were baseless.

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