L.A. Schools' Bilingual Reform Plan Criticized

The proposed overhaul of the Los Angeles Unified School District’s bilingual education plan drew fire Thursday from Latino parents, who said many of them could not even read it because it was not translated into Spanish.

The document was released late last week to allow time for review before Thursday’s meeting, which was to be the main public hearing on the bilingual changes before the school board votes on the plan in mid-June. Among the key proposals are limiting students’ tenure in bilingual classes to five years and providing financial bonuses to schools that promote students into regular programs.

“How can you say you’ve been seeking input from the parents if they can’t even read it?” asked Gabriel Medel, who heads a group called Parents for Unity and serves on the district’s bilingual advisory committee.

Responding to the parents’ concerns, the school board said it would take public comment at two upcoming meetings before voting: the June 3 board meeting and the June 13 instructional committee meeting.

District administrators said the 208-page document, produced after nearly a year of meetings by 15 special committees, was too large to translate immediately. But they said the executive summary is being translated into several languages, including Spanish.

“It’s just a matter of logistics,” said Assistant Supt. Jessie Franco, who is in charge of bilingual education. “I had hoped that translation would be ready today, but it’s not.”

Nearly half of the district’s 650,000 students are enrolled in the bilingual program and most of their parents speak little or no English. The vast majority of students in bilingual classes–92%–are Latino. In general,
district and school publications are produced in Spanish and often in Korean and Armenian.

The amended document, reflecting the first major changes since the bilingual master plan was produced in 1988, is to be the guideline for educating all non-English-speaking students in the district.

The review began in July after Supt. Sid Thompson included in a sweeping set of five-year goals the quicker progress of bilingual students into mainstream English classes.

Typically, students in Los Angeles spend an average of five to seven years in classes taught mostly in their first language–an approach that has become increasingly controversial across the country. The new plan proposes a five-year limit, not counting kindergarten, for elementary school students and three to four years for middle and high school students.

As an incentive, the plan suggests using 5% of state bilingual funding–or about $ 2.5 million a year–to balance out the loss of bilingual support when schools transfer students into mainstream classes. Under that proposal,
the money would be reserved for services to help those students adjust,
including counseling and tutoring.

Those who oppose native language instruction said they were disappointed that the revisions did not go further toward all-English instruction.

“They’re saying five years beyond kindergarten, which is the total elementary school period, so what’s the change?” asked Alice Callaghan,
director of a skid row community center who this year led a boycott of a downtown elementary school by parents who opposed bilingual education.

Those who strongly support native language instruction said the limits may be a bad idea.

“Are we pushing? Are we appeasing the political climate?” asked Caroline Saucedo, a bilingual kindergarten teacher at Commonwealth Avenue School.

Some of the parents who spoke at Thursday’s hearing are critical of the plan’s inclusion for the first time of English-speaking students–particularly those who speak what is commonly known as black English. They said they feared that the change would diminish funding for their children.

“We’re just guarding what we have,” said Robert Flores, a Sylmar High School parent who served on one of the 15 committees that produced the plan.

Franco said the district does not plan to use existing bilingual funds to educate those children, but thought that some of the same teaching techniques could be used with them.

African American parents who spoke at the meeting said their children deserve the special treatment and funding afforded to bilingual-program students.

“It’s a worrisome phenomenon to see tensions between Latino and African American parents over scarce resources,” school board President Mark Slavkin said in an interview. “They are anguished and I understand that.”

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