SACRAMENTO — The Westminster School District has become the latest flash point in the escalating debate over bilingual education in California.
The district’s new status as poster child for the anti-bilingual movement was cemented Thursday by Ron Unz, the Palo Alto entrepreneur behind the
“English for the Children” initiative. He hailed the decision by the State Board of Education to let Westminster use English-based teaching indefinitely, calling it “tried, tested and successful.”
Supporters of bilingual education were equally quick to condemn the board’s decision that made Westminster the first district in the state to gain permanent approval to do away with bilingual education.
In reality, however, educators concede that what Westminster does in the classroom — with a few innovative exceptions — is essentially no different from what occurs in thousands of classrooms in California.
Particularly in view of the debate surrounding the Unz initiative —
which will go before voters June 2 — many people seem to think that most of the 1.4 million limited-English students in California are receiving instruction in their home language.
“That isn’t really the case,” said Margaret Sanders, a teacher who oversees the Tustin Unified School District’s English development program,
which like many districts uses uncredentialed, bilingual “paraprofessionals”
as aides to help English-speaking teachers in the classroom. “And we don’t have a lot of them,” Sanders said.
The district has about a dozen aides circulating among 23 “newcomer”
and English development classes, which serve about 450 children.
State guidelines mandate that limited-English students must remain on equal footing with fluent students, even if that means being taught in a foreign language. But it doesn’t mean that immigrant children operate in an academic environment devoid of English.
“People seem to think that these kids get all their instruction in Spanish and that the only opportunity they have to learn English is in the schoolyard or the street,” said Alan Trudell, spokesman for the 45,000-student Garden Grove Unified School District, which, like Tustin Unified, offers graduated English-immersion instruction. “That’s not the way it is.”
Norm Gold, bilingual-compliance manager for the State Department of Education,
said only about 30 percent of limited-English students statewide receive instruction in a foreign language, and most of those inevitably receive some English instruction in some subjects.
Most California school districts have received waivers similar to —
but not exactly the same as — the special waivers granted to Westminster and three other Orange County school districts: Orange Unified, Magnolia and Savanna. The waivers allow districts to operate outside the boundaries of state mandates regarding bilingual instruction, although with exhaustive,
expensive and time-consuming evaluations and reporting requirements.
What separates the four Orange County districts, especially Westminster,
from the rest is that they have opted to apply for special waivers that make them autonomous from state bilingual guidelines. In Westminster’s case,
applying for the general waiver allowed the district to implement its concept of training teachers and paraprofessionals together as “teaching teams”
with a focused and unified approach in each classroom.
That would differ from what Gold said often can be the scenario: “Aides wandering around whispering in a few kids’ ears.”
The waiver also spared Westminster teachers from “taking foreign-language classes they didn’t want to take,” said Westminster school board member Michael Verrengia.
The downside — as Verrengia and other Westminster school officials are quick to attest — is that obtaining a permanent waiver can be an arduous task.
Verrengia, who was school board president when Westminster launched its waiver campaign in 1995, has been particularly critical of what he sees as stickling, obstructionist tactics by state officials such as Gold. Gold monitored Westminster’s waiver from the outset and recommended that the state board extend a temporary rather than permanent waiver.
Verrengia recalled Thursday that Orange Unified board member Robert Viviano asked him for advice as Orange prepared to apply for its waiver. “My words to him were, ‘Good luck, it won’t be easy. You’re going to run into a gentleman named Mr. Gold. Your work’s cut out for you.’ “
Verrengia said Gold’s department is influenced by bilingual advocates and there “may be a certain amount of turf protection going on.”
Gold said he views Westminster’s program as “potentially very powerful”
and one that he recommends other districts study. Yet he also said that
“adversarial roles” may come with the territory. “Our position has to be that if you choose to do things differently, then you should do them well,” he said.
Register staff writer John Gittelsohn contributed to this report.