IMPERIAL BEACH — The South Bay Union School District’s bilingual charter school could close because of state regulations that cost the district $1.9 million.

Scores of parents, teachers and students rallied at school administration headquarters yesterday to protest what they saw as a threat to bilingual education.

The charter school is not in fact a school but an umbrella organization for the bilingual education programs in the district’s 12 elementary schools.
They encompass 3,800 non-English-speaking students.

South Bay Union has about 10,000 kindergarten-through-sixth-graders in schools in Imperial Beach and surrounding areas.

The district established the charter school in 1999 to circumvent Proposition 227, the voter-approved initiative that bans bilingual education except when parents sign waivers allowing it for their children.

Bilingual education supporters see the charter as the best tool to continue teaching in Spanish.

Andres Hernandez, 11, a fifth-grader at Nestor Elementary School, broke down in tears as he told administrators and the crowd how important bilingual education was to him.

“When I’m older, I want to be able to talk to my grandparents, to my parents and also my children. If they don’t continue (the charter), I won’t be able to talk to anyone,” he said.

Superintendent Rich Thome emphasized that bilingual education in the district would not end even if the charter ends.

“This board is committed to primary language instruction, to bilingual education, when parents want it,” Thome said.

At issue is $1.9 million in state funding for the months of July and August 1999. That summer South Bay schools changed from a July-through-June calendar to a September-through-August school year. The change delayed the opening of school by two months, so the state took away two months’ worth of funding even though the students completed a 180-day school year, said Walter Freeman, assistant superintendent.

Freeman said that because of differences in state law regarding funding for charter and traditional public schools, the district would recover the two-month allotment when the charter school closes.

With an annual budget of $65 million, district leaders must consider whether the schools can afford to take the hit.

The charter school’s defenders said having a charter is essential to the bilingual education program.

Charter schools get exemptions from many state laws, such as Proposition 227, in exchange for meeting academic goals.

There’s proof those goals are being met and surpassed, charter supporters said, in students’ scores on the state-mandated Stanford 9 test of basic skills. For example, 8 percent of the district’s non-English-speaking second-graders scored at or above the national average on the reading test in 1999. In 2000, after a year of the charter school, 29 percent reached the national average, according to district data.

If the charter were abolished, even students whose parents sign waivers to exempt them from Proposition 227’s requirements would have to spend their first month in school in English-only classrooms.

Lisa Celaya, a third-grade bilingual teacher at Mendoza Elementary School,
said that if the charter is abolished, “I don’t believe we’re going to be able to give them the quality education that’s necessary for our children to succeed.”

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