District Wants Non-Bilingual Program OKd

Education: Westminster officials hope State Board gives permanent approval, but 2-year extension of waiver is likely.

WESTMINSTER—An Orange County school district that has been a leader in the anti-bilingual education movement appears virtually assured of winning permission to extend an English-immersion teaching program despite falling short in two measures of success.

Westminster School District officials plan to travel Wednesday to the State Board of Education in Sacramento to argue that students who are not fluent in English have advanced rapidly since the district won a two-year exemption from bilingual education rules in February 1996.

The state board is expected to approve the district’s petition for renewal, but a dispute has arisen about the duration of the waiver. State regulators say it should be good for only two years; Westminster officials say it should be permanent.

The outcome is likely to be watched closely as California debates whether bilingual education or other teaching methods work best for the state’s 1.4 million students with limited English skills.

The district serves 9,200 students from kindergarten through eighth grade in Westminster, unincorporated Midway City and small parts of Huntington Beach and Garden Grove. Four of every 10 students speak Vietnamese or Spanish as their first language and can read and write little English.

Westminster, which had struggled to find qualified teachers fluent in Vietnamese, was the first district in California to take advantage of a 1995 state policy that opened the door for more local alternatives to bilingual education. Three Orange County school districts, based in Anaheim and Orange, have since followed.

Westminster officials describe their program as English-only with this
caveat: A trained corps of bilingual classroom aides helps students somewhat in their home language.

Officials cite better-than-expected gains in reading, language and mathematics test scores among the targeted students as grounds for the state board to support their petition.

“I’m really optimistic,” said Michael J. Verrengia, president of the board of trustees. “We’ve shown that an alternative program can work if you set it up right.”

But an analysis by state regulators found that the district fell short of its stated goals in two areas.

The district had aimed to boost its so-called “redesignation rate” by 3 percentage points.

Redesignation is the process in which educators test and identify those students who have reached English fluency. The rate measures how many students reach that level as a percentage of the total number of limited-English students.

To reach the district’s goal, the annual rate should have risen from 4.7% to 7.7%. In fact, the 1996-97 rate fell to 4.2%–well below the statewide average of 6.7%–though officials say the district’s rate for the current school year is now 5.5% and climbing.

On the second indicator, the district had sought a significant increase in the English skills of 90% of its nonfluent students. It reached that goal with 76% of the students.

Saying that the evidence appeared mixed, state Department of Education regulators recommended that Westminster be allowed to continue with its efforts but report back to the state board for another renewal in two years.

“They’re not a clear failure and they’re not a clear success at this stage,” said Norman C. Gold, the education department’s manager of bilingual compliance. “It’s hard to say.”

Bill Lucia, executive director for the state board, said the district should be required only to file a written progress report in 1999. “Why would we drag them back up here?” he asked. “We need to start to be reasonable and mean something when we say that districts ought to have some flexibility.”

Last spring, tensions flared between Westminster school board officials and the state education department when Verrengia declined to apologize for calling bilingual education regulators a “merry bunch of communists.”

Delaine Eastin, the state superintendent of public instruction, rebuked Verrengia afterward in a sharply worded letter threatening legal action.

Neither Verrengia nor Gold would comment last week on that incident.

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