Orange District OKs Bilingual Education End

Schools: Board overrides 200 protesters in voting 7 to 0 to ask the state's approval for an English-immersion program.

ORANGE—Orange Unified School District trustees unanimously approved a plan Thursday night to scrap bilingual education, seeking to become the largest district in California to win permission for an English-intensive curriculum.

The 7-0 vote came despite the objections of about 200 protesters who said the plan violates the rights of 4,700 students in the district who have little or no command of English. Of those, 4,200 are Spanish speakers.

The demonstrators, some carrying picket signs, walked in a circle outside the board room before the meeting started.

“I think it’s a racist action against the Latino community,” Sonia Reyes, an Orange mother with two children in bilingual classes, said in Spanish. “They’re trying to get rid of the Spanish language, which is our culture.”

But board members argued that they were only seeking to give the students a better education.

“I feel that if we were to continue bilingual education in this district, we’d be doing them a disservice and a grave injustice by not allowing them to become fluent in English early,” said board member Rick Ledesma.

The proposal goes to state education officials. If it is approved, Orange will be the largest district to win an exemption from a state requirement to teach students with limited English in their native language.

So far, only three other districts in the state have won such exemptions under a 2-year-old state policy. All are from Orange County: Magnolia and Savanna, based in Anaheim, and Westminster. But Orange, with 28,000 students, has a larger enrollment than the three others combined.

The Orange school board is often deeply split between a conservative four-vote majority, which attacks big government, and three moderates. But on this night it united behind a 34-page document that asks the state Board of Education to allow teachers to cease all academic instruction in Spanish and move swiftly to a program of English immersion.

Spanish-speaking students from kindergarten through third grade would be those most affected. Most are now taught primarily in Spanish, with English on the side. Under the new plan, their teachers would use English, helped by Spanish-language aides.

In addition, the district would offer extra classes–after school, in the summer and in preschool centers–to help students become fluent in English.

“There is no question it is going to be more intensive,” said Assistant Supt. Neil McKinnon. “There will be more opportunities for children to learn English quicker.”

Many districts in California over the years have won permission to experiment with the state’s bilingual education program–driven by a huge shortage in credentialed bilingual teachers. But the new, broad waiver allowing districts to skip native-language instruction entirely is seen by bilingual education advocates as a direct attack on a bilingual system that for more than 20 years has been one of the nation’s strictest.

It is unclear whether the revolt in Orange County will spread.

David Dolson, a bilingual program specialist for the state Department of Education, said he doubts many California districts would follow the trend here.

“The type of waiver these districts are applying for in Orange County has more of a political than an educational feeling to it,” Dolson said. “Other districts might not feel they have the community or academic support for it.”

Dolson said parent protests could influence the state Board of Education, which has the final vote on the matter.

Local pro-bilingual activists also hope the federal Office of Civil Rights will step in. In a landmark 1974 ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court held that schools are obliged to help students overcome language barriers to the mainstream curriculum.

Parents who oppose the Orange board say they may file suit to save the bilingual program.

Critics of the board, many speaking through Spanish interpreters, charged that they were cut out of the decision-making.

Some who went through school before bilingual education was instituted said they remember the struggle of trying to keep up with the academics while flailing with English.

“There is a difference between someone who can say, ‘Where is the bathroom?’ and someone who learns biology,” said Celso Rodriguez, a bilingual resource teacher at the district’s Jordan Elementary School, who grew up in Texas. “For every one of us that did succeed, we have dozens of our friends who didn’t follow us.”

But the school board members were standing firm behind their philosophy that no child facing the marketplace in coming years can expect to get by without fluency in English.

Trustee Ledesma, a Latino who was taught solely in English, said before the meeting that pro-bilingual activists are inadvertently holding their children back.

“I work in both languages and it’s important that my English skills be at their highest level first, because that is what has given me the opportunities in my career,” said Ledesma, an accountant.

Also contributing to this report was Times staff writer Nick Anderson.

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