Seeking an End to Bilingual Education

Schools: Westminster petitions for a permanent waiver

WESTMINSTER — School officials will ask the state today for a permanent end to bilingual education in Westminster schools. But at least one state official says she’s reluctant to allow that now.

Westminster School District Superintendent Barbara DeHart is scheduled to plead the district’s case before the state Board of Education this afternoon in Sacramento.

A two-year extension of a temporary waiver granted in 1995 seems well within reach for the district, but state board member Marina Tse said the board will be reluctant to grant a permanent waiver.

“Westminster has a good alternative program,” Tse said. “But I’m not sure we can just let go of something and then never go back and see if our decision was the correct one.”

Much is on the line. Westminster, where about 40 percent of students speak Vietnamese or Spanish, was the first district in the state to gain a temporary reprieve from state bilingual-instruction guidelines that many educators and politicians have described as onerous and ineffective.

The 9,500-student district’s progress is watched closely as a result.
And the debate is framed by the “English for the Children” ballot initiative to be considered by California voters in 1998, which would require public schools to drop most bilingual instruction practices. Three other Orange County districts — Savanna, Magnolia and Orange Unified — have followed Westminster’s lead and gained temporary waivers.

Westminster’s alternative program that will be reviewed today uses bilingual aides to help teachers who conduct lessons in English. The aides preview and review lessons in Vietnamese and Spanish, but otherwise, teaching and class discussion are in English. Teachers and their bilingual assistants also undergo extensive training together.

“The teachers love it,” said Carolyn Anderson, a second- grade teacher who has taught in the district for 32 years. “The difference is the training. Before, teachers didn’t have time to plan with their aide.
Under this program there is more time for planning and that translates into better curriculum.”

Anderson said the students benefit because teachers are better prepared to meet the challenge of breaking down the language barrier at an earlier age. Students who previously might have waited until much later to be exposed to English instruction now start in the first grade.

“And the students that don’t depend on falling back and waiting for their native language to be spoken learn English more quickly,”
she said.

Not everyone agrees. Norm Gold, manager of bilingual compliance for the California Department of Education, has recommended that the board only bestow a two-year extension of the waiver because he contends that the district has failed to meet goals established for the alternative program in 1995.

For example, the district’s “redesignation rate” is at issue.
Redesignation refers to the number of students who are judged to be fluent in English and are ready for English-only instruction. The district’s stated goal was to raise its redesignation 3 percentage points to 7.7 percent of its limited-English students. Instead, Gold said, in 1996-97 the redesignation rate fell to 4.2 percent, or 0.5 percent lower than two years ago.

“Perhaps these were overly ambitious goals,” Gold said. “But the results seem to argue for another look further down the road.”

Tracy Painter, the district’s director of special projects, said the redesignation rate for the most recent school year is artificially low because the state ended its review in March, before much testing of students could be completed. The redesignation rate actually is about 6 percent, she said.

Such will be the nature of the arguments to be heard by the state board today. Painter, who oversees the alternative program, said a two-year extension
“would not be our first choice. But whether the board grants an extension or full approval, we will be happy to comply.”

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