Arguing that their children are unable to learn in bilingual classes, a group of Fillmore parents is lobbying the school district to overhaul its bilingual program and to add more English-only classes for kindergarten and first-grade students.
But officials of the Fillmore Unified School District say there are so many non-English-speaking students in their six schools — especially in the lower grades — that it is impossible to meet all the demands for English-only classes without violating desegregation laws.
Both state and federal laws protect children from isolation or segregation based on their language or race. In addition, state education laws require that all children have full access to a school district’s basic educational program, regardless of a child’s ability to speak English.
About 43% of Fillmore students from kindergarten through third grade are limited-English speakers, said Assistant Supt. Mario Contini. The percentage is even higher at San Cayetano Elementary School, a kindergarten-through-third grade school where several English-speaking parents have complained, he said.
“We are able to provide English-only classrooms if it doesn’t create segregation,” Contini said. “If, by adding English-only classrooms, we’re forcing ourselves into a segregated environment, we can’t do it.”
In meetings earlier this month, parents have told school district officials that their children have been shortchanged by the lack of English-only classes in the district.
Board members responded by forming a 10-member committee of parents, administrators and teachers to reexamine Fillmore’s bilingual program. The committee will look at programs in other districts and search for a model for Fillmore’s year-round schools, school officials said.
In Fillmore’s bilingual program, Spanish- and English-speaking students spend a portion of the day together, so that each group can learn the other’s language.
When students are together in a bilingual teacher’s class, for example, the teacher may repeat instructions in English and Spanish. In addition, English-speaking students who receive instruction in Spanish as a Second Language have the opportunity to practice what they learn with classmates who speak Spanish. Conversely, Spanish-speakers learning English have more contact with their English-speaking classmates, and can talk to them in English.
“This is being done with good intentions,” said board member Clark Johnson. “A lot of parents agree with that (policy), but other parents prefer their kids working in, and learning, English. The real rub of the problem has been choice.”
A group of 27 English-speaking parents, who call themselves Concerned Parents of Fillmore Unified, say they have been given no choice but to place their children in bilingual classes when they have not yet fully developed their English skills.
Group members say they are particularly upset because San Cayetano has only bilingual classes in kindergarten and first grade this year. The limited options are unfortunate, parents say, because learning basic English skills is crucial for 5- and 6-year-olds.
In bilingual classes, their children often tune out whenever Spanish is spoken, the parents contend.
“I have a child who learned absolutely nothing in her kindergarten class because it was bilingual,” said group spokeswoman Laura Woodward. “As soon as they started speaking Spanish in the morning, she would shut down for hours. . . . Some kids do fine, but others just can’t handle it.”
The Concerned Parent group is circulating a petition in Fillmore, advocating that all parents be given a choice of English-only classrooms for children in the lower grades. As of last week, the group had gathered about 300 signatures, Woodward said.
In 1985, Fillmore became the first city in the nation to endorse a resolution making English its official language. A year later, California voters overwhelmingly endorsed an initiative declaring English the state’s official language.
The movement that led to the 1985 resolution was started by a Fillmore resident who opposed the bilingual program in local schools. Debate over the resolution triggered a rancorous period during which accusations of racism were raised and neighbor opposed neighbor.
Recalling that period, Woodward said her group’s petition is neither racially motivated nor intended to open old wounds.
“None of this was based on prejudice,” Woodward said. “It was based strictly on needs. What about the needs of our children, and when are they going to be met?”
David Dolson, manager of the Department of Education’s bilingual education office, called controversy over bilingual education “a recurring problem in Fillmore.”
State education officials review bilingual programs every three years, he said. Fillmore’s program complies with state law, and the department has received no complaints about it, he said.
“When parents say they don’t want their children to be exposed” to a foreign language, Dolson said, “the law doesn’t protect them, because the other children have a right to be instructed in their primary language.”
Group members say they are not opposed to bilingual classes being offered. Rather, they want more of a say in deciding whether their children are placed in them.
“A lot of children come home from school crying” out of frustration, said parent Priscilla Bethel. “We don’t want to abolish bilingual (classes). A lot of us mothers feel it’s very important. But Spanish shouldn’t be the major language in the school, and that’s the way it’s turning out to be.”
Because of her dissatisfaction with Fillmore schools, Bethel said she transferred her third-grade daughter to Camarillo’s Pleasant Valley Elementary School District last year, near her husband’s job.
Officials in the 3,350-student district say that even if a child is in a bilingual class, a parent may request that the child be instructed only in English.
English-only students in bilingual classes learn phonics, write in journals, read and do other activities in English during the 20- to 30-minute period that their classmates are learning Spanish, said Karen Cooksey, principal of San Cayetano.
But school officials acknowledge that the English-only classes some parents want are often not available.
“Right now, you don’t always have a choice,” board member Johnson said. “Sometimes you end up having to learn Spanish, because we need the kids in that class to keep the racial balance.”
Members of the parent group say many parents are not aware that, if their child is in a bilingual classroom, they can request that their child be taught only in English.
“They don’t tell the parents there are documents you can sign” requesting English-only instruction, said a parent who asked that her name not be used. “If a parent isn’t aware of what’s going on, the student is put into a bilingual class and starts learning Spanish.”
The option of English-only instruction was mentioned in a letter sent home to parents, Cooksey said, and teachers also discussed it in conference with parents that were held last week.
“Part of our intent was always to discuss it at conference time, so we thought we were doing a good job communicating,” Cooksey said.
But parents say the letter was unclear, and that the parent conference during the eighth week of school comes too late, when children have already been in class for weeks in the year-round district.
Next year, Cooksey said, the information will be clearly spelled out in a letter to be sent to parents before school begins.
Another problem is that the district’s bilingual program varies from classroom to classroom, Johnson said. The program is based on a handbook written about six years ago, after parents lobbied for changes in the program, he said.
“From what I’ve seen, the program is kind of happening the way individual teachers are able, to the best of their abilities, to apply it,” Johnson said. “They’re staying with what the general idea should be, but it’s all different. Some kids are in one class and their parents are happy as clams. Other kids are in another class that’s not meeting their needs, and their parents are unhappy.”
In addition, some parents are complaining about a teaching method called classroom teaming. The method teams a bilingual teacher with a teacher who does not have a bilingual credential.
Students start the day in two separate classrooms, where they are integrated both racially and by language. During a portion of the day, however, the Spanish-speaking students all move together to the bilingual teacher’s room to be taught in Spanish, while English-speakers move to English-only classrooms. Students spend more than half the day being taught in their primary language classroom and later return to their homerooms.
Twenty-two of San Cayetano’s 28 teachers are teamed, Cooksey said. Of the remaining classes, three are self-contained bilingual rooms, and three are classes where instruction is in English only.
But some parents say classroom teaming forces their children to spend up to 40 minutes a day moving from class to class to group English- and Spanish-speakers throughout the day.
However, district officials said the time students spend switching classes is about 10 minutes or less, and that they hope to reduce it further.
After evaluating Fillmore’s bilingual program and looking at others, the committee will recommend any changes to the board. A deadline for the recommendations has not been set, officials said.
“The reality is, we have a difficult situation,” Johnson said. “Parents feel we’re taking one group and making it better for them, and in doing so sacrificing another group. We don’t want to raise one group up by having them step on another group.
“The ultimate goal,” Johnson said, “is to make it fair, and to make sure that everybody has their choice.”