MERCED—Some parents say Spanish-speaking students in the bilingual education program at Alicia Reyes Elementary School know the language better than their teachers.
That’s not true, say Merced City Elementary School District administrators. All teachers in the school’s kindergarten through fifth-grade bilingual classes either hold a bilingual teaching credential or are at various stages of studying or applying for one, they say.
The Committee of Parents for a Better Bilingual Education, which formed in August out of anger and frustration, is not satisfied with the district’s answers.
“We just want our children to receive what the law says they are entitled to,” said Maria de Jesus Calderon, committee president. “We are not attacking anyone. We respect teachers.”
Parents simply want more input in making decisions that affect their children, Calderon said.
Of the 900 students at Alicia Reyes, 63 percent have limited English-language skills and have been designated Limited English Proficient, or LEP, students.
Of those, Hmong is the native language of 47 percent. Spanish is the native language for 41 percent, Mien for about 10 percent and the other 2 percent speak Lao, Vietnamese, Punjab, Russian and Korean, according to school principal Peter Hodges.
The committee’s requests stretch well beyond increasing the number of Spanish-speaking teachers with a bilingual credential. But “until that issue is resolved, then nothing else can be resolved,” Calderon said.
The three-member committee also has asked the district to:
* Let parents help plan, implement and evaluate the bilingual education plan for Alicia Reyes.
* Provide better educational materials in Spanish.
* Offer more support for Mexican culture and history.
* Include traditional Mexican crafts in the curriculum.
* Provide Spanish-language translators during public meetings.
* Improve communication and cooperation between parents and school officials.
Assistant Superintendent Judy Doyle said the district has acknowledged parents’ concerns.
“We do listen to parents,” Doyle said. “We can’t always do things in the manner they ask. But we listen.”
When parents saw two Spanish-speaking, bilingual teachers in classrooms with predominantly Hmong students, they asked the principal to transfer those instructors to a classroom where their language skills could be put to better use.
Although both teachers hold bilingual teaching credentials and speak Spanish, they were placed wherever there was an opening when they were hired in June, Doyle said.
Superintendent Don De Long, citing union contracts, said those two teachers could not be transferred to another track unless they made that request.
One teacher recently shifted to a Spanish-speaking bilingual classroom after another transferred to a different school. The second Spanish-speaking bilingual teacher volunteered to switch tracks to a bilingual class.
In August, the district hired a language specialist to work with teachers who don’t have a bilingual teaching certificate.
“It was one of the first things we did in response to the parents,” Doyle said. “Even though what we were doing before was perfectly legal, we went a step beyond.”
Although school district superintendent Don De Long sent parents written responses addressing their other concerns, Calderon said the committee and its supporters — about 50 people — are not satisfied.
“They gave us superficial answers,” Calderon said.
The bottom line is, parents want to be involved. “We don’t want war,” Calderon said.
For now, about the only thing that parents and administrators agree on is that the program needs to be reviewed.
Doyle said the district’s five-year master plan is being examined during a three-part series of public hearings. The third hearing will be Tuesday at 7 p.m. at Fremont School, 1120 W. 22nd St.
“We are in the process of writing the master plan now. Because of the parents’ complaints, we pulled the bilingual educational services part and formed a Blue Ribbon Task Force,” Doyle said. “We need parents, interested community members, teachers to help us. We’re not perfect.”
However, when Calderon and other parents attended the public hearings and offered comments, they weren’t able to mention teachers or name other school employees.
Della Temple, district board president, said that’s because “during that time, we can’t have personnel issues discussed.”
According to the board’s attorney, Chet Quaide, the board cannot allow any criticism of a specific employee during a public meeting because “one, it’s an invasion of privacy. Two, there’s a problem with due process.” Employees do not have an opportunity to defend themselves.
But attorney Clytie Koehler, of the Central California Legal Services, disagrees. Koehler is representing the parents’ committee.
“Board members are ill-informed of their obligations and what principles they should be guided on,” Koehler said.
Last week, board members agreed to discuss concerns with parents during a closed session. The meeting was closed to the public because the board thought parents wanted to discuss specific employees.
“We accepted the closed session because they said we could discuss things openly,” said Calderon, who attended the meeting. “Also, we didn’t want it to look like we were not interested in cooperating.”
But when Calderon and her fellow committee members were told they could not discuss the meeting with other parents or the public, “we told them we didn’t want to meet in closed session.”
Temple declined to discuss the closed session.
Calderon said she and fellow committee members Eva Herrera and Martha Silva do not want people to think they are launching a campaign against teachers or administrators.
They simply want answers, she said.
Koehler said she is considering filing legal action against the board to help get those answers.
During past public meetings, board members voted down a request from the parents to videotape those meetings, saying it would be disruptive.
Parents said they wanted to record the meetings so that they could later translate the content for parents who do not speak English and show it to those parents who could not attend the meeting.
“They think we don’t know our rights. They think there is ignorance among us and as long as we don’t educate ourselves, it will be,” Calderon said.
“For me, this has been an awakening. As a parent, the time has come to pay more attention to what’s going on in school and what’s going on with our children. We simply want to be included.”