ORANGE, CA—What is more important: local control or ending bilingual education?
That is the question the Orange Unified School board weighs tonight when it votes on a request from Jordan Elementary School to independently determine curriculum and spending priorities by becoming a charter school.
Jordan’s charter plan outlines several ways independence from the district can boost school quality.
A combination of mandatory student uniforms, management efficiencies, smaller classes and improved technology should all help raise test scores at the school, where children routinely score below the national average in reading and math.
But the bilingual-instruction question has generated the most passion among parents, teachers and school board members.
The charter request by Jordan, where two-thirds of the 600 K-6 students currently study at least part time in Spanish, comes as the Orange Unified school board is trying to win state permission to teach all classes in English.
Jordan Principal Kit Dameron said charter status will not ensure bilingual education at her school but will let teachers and parents decide how to run classrooms.
So many Jordan students come from low-income, Spanish-speaking families that the school shouldn’t be expected to operate the same as schools in more affluent parts of Orange Unified, she said.
“We want to do everything we can to meet the needs of our students,” Dameron said. “A charter gives us the flexibility and ability to be creative to do that job. “
But school-board member Bob Viviano said that unless Jordan renounces bilingual classes, he won’t support the charter request.
“It comes down to a question of the higher good,” said Viviano, who was an early cheerleader for Orange Unified’s other charter, Santiago Middle School. “In my mind, the higher good here is to protect the quality of education for children. I believe if bilingual education is institutionalized through a charter, that’s a problem. Literacy in English is basic to me. “
Board President Martin Jacobson said the higher good in this case is local control. He supports Jordan’s charter proposal despite thepossibility of continued bilingual education at the school.
“I think it’s terrific,” he said. “Some issues I feel so strongly about that I would have to consider a vote against a charter. But I’m not standing in the way of a charter solely based on the bilingual issue. “
The board also is scheduled tonight to reaffirm last month’s unanimous vote for a state waiver to allow English-only instruction. Bilingual advocates have vowed to turn out en masse to protest the waiver. Asked whether their presence would change his mind, Jacobson gave a one-word answer: “No.”
Studies of bilingual education’s effectiveness have come to conflicting conclusions.
Critics say bilingual programs retard student development by denying them the language needed to succeed in the United States.
Proponents of bilingual education say English-only instruction can stunt the academic progress of children whose language skills are too limited to learn new concepts in English.
Some Jordan parents whose children study in bilingual classes say they like things the way they are.
“It’s better for them to learn to read in Spanish and learn English little by little,” said Gloria Marroquin, a Spanish-speaking mother of three Jordan students. “We can help with their homework in Spanish, but not in English. “
Jordan parent Steve Zimmer, whose first-grade daughter Kelly speaks only English, also backed Spanish instruction for those who need it. He said eliminating classes in Spanish could slow the intellectual development of other children at Jordan.
“If the curriculum had to be slowed or watered down because of the language barrier _ not the intellectual barrier _ then my daughter would be getting a disservice,” said Zimmer, a computer salesman who hopes charter status will give Jordan more money to spend on technology.
Orange Unified’s bilingual debate is the latest in a series of controversies involving district policies. The board, which is dominated by back-to-basics-style conservatives, has barred most health and social services in schools, rejected federal programs amid fears of hidden mandates, and sparred frequently with the teachers union.
But the debate over bilingual education and Jordan’s charter doesnot cut across simple liberal-conservative political lines.
Santiago Middle School Principal Mary Ann Owsley said Jordan’s charter status should not stand or fall on the bilingual debate.
“If it appeared headed for failure, I know what I’d do,” said Owsley, whose school received charter status in 1994. “I’d find a way to compromise. “
Owsley suggested Spanish-speaking Jordan students could receive help before or after school if trustees make English-only instruction a condition of granting charter status.
Since becoming a charter, Santiago has saved thousands of dollars by using parents as substitutes, hiring teachers at the bottom of the pay scale and operating maintenance services more efficiently, Owsley said.
The savings have paid for smaller classes, new portable classrooms and a computer lab. Academic standards are being stiffened so failing students will have to take after-school or summer-school classes or repeat a year.
Owsley doesn’t expect to see dramatic rises in test scores this year. Part of the problem is the quality of the schooling her students receive before they arrive at Santiago, she said. A charter elementary school or a districtwide English-only policy could both help address her problems.
“It’s frustrating at this level when they’re not reading and speaking and writing well,” Owsley said. “But people should be able to sit down and talk, not just kill a charter. “
The open meeting will follow a closed session on contract talks with teachers set for 6:30 p.m. at the District Education Center, 1401 N. Handy St. Call (714) 997-6221.
Register staff writer Tom Snyder contributed to this report.
HIGHLIGHTS: JORDAN ELEMENTARY CHARTER PROPOSAL
CURRICULUM: Jordan could purchase its own textbooks and decide which method of instruction to use. This could include bilingual education, which the Orange Unified School District board is trying to eliminate.
BUDGET: Jordan would receive the same funding per student _ about $ 4,200 _ as the Orange Unified average. Money would go directly to the school instead of being filtered through the district, lowering administrative costs. Jordan could theoretically cut spending on maintenance and other categories to spend more money on smaller classes or new computers.
MANAGEMENT: A board of 13 _ including principal, teachers, parents, an Orange Unified district administrator and other community representatives _ would establish policies and approve the budget.
Without a charter, the district would establish school policies and determine most of the budget.
EVALUATION: Test scores, absence rates, discipline problems and other statistical measures would be used to assess the success of the charter.
RULES: Parentswould be required to perform 12 hours of service each year at the school. Uniforms would be mandatory. Students failing to abide by the behavior code could be sent to another elementary school.
STAFF: Employees could still belong to unions and receive the same protection, pay and benefits as other Orange Unified workers. Costs of the school are based on the seniority and credentials of teachers, which makes it advantageous to hire more people at the low end of the pay scale. Substitutes and part-time teachers need not be fully credentialed.