Study supports English-based teaching

Schools: The Westminster report comes as the district seeks a waiver on bilingual requirements

WESTMINSTER — A study showing that Westminster students have made gains with English-based instruction was the latest card in an ever-exp anding poker game over the future of bilingual education.

The study, presented Thursday to the Westminster School District board,
may be crucial as the district prepares to argue for a precedent-setting permanent waiver from state bilingual requirements. District officials will make their case in December before the state Board of Education.

The study also comes as the merits of bilingual education are increasingly debated. An initiative that would effectively require English instruction likely will be on the state ballot in June, and the issue has become a central focus in the Orange Unified School District board race.

“This is a situation where all eyes are on us,” said Westminster board President Michael Verrengia. “The study seems to indicate that we’ve reached the goals we set for ourselves. In fact, it looks like we’ve done that and more.”

In a report presented by Tracy Painter, director of special projects for the Westminster district, board members were told:

  • Achievement-test scores have improved during the past two years.
  • English-language development improved 10 percent more than district
  • A 3 percent increase was measured in the rate of students being reclassified
    from “limited- English” to “fluent.”
  • A confidential survey of district teachers found strong support for
    the alternative program.

“We’re very excited about these results,” Painter said. “The indication is that our alternative program is working.”

Reaction to the report at Thursday’s board meeting seemed generally supportive.
Kathy Iverson, a parent and teacher at Westminster High School, said the current approach “is better than it was. If it’s good for the kids,
let’s stay with it.”

However, Westminster’s scores still fall below the national average.

The district in February 1996 became the first in the state to gain a two-year waiver because not enough teachers fluent in Vietnamese could be hired to meet state standards.

The diverse, 9,200-student school district is divided roughly into thirds among students speaking English, Vietnamese and Spanish. About half of all students are classified as limited in English proficiency.

When the waiver was granted, the district was ordered to report to the state board in 22 months on the progress of the program, which relies on part-time bilingual teaching aides.

The study made public Thursday is part of the criteria that will be used in determining the fate of the Westminster program, said Lauri Burnham,
a bilingual consultant with the California Department of Education who will review the report.

Burnham said Thursday that she had not yet analyzed the findings, but that the state agency is “feeling very good about the district’s efforts so far.”

How the program plays out in the classroom was demonstrated Thursday at Willmore Elementary School, where Lena Castellanos, a bilingual aide,
works with a kindergarten teacher.

Castellanos worked Thursday with six children in the mostly Hispanic class on an exercise about trees, first talking about the lesson in Spanish,
flipping through a book, “The Little Apple Seed.” Then she worked with the children on an English worksheet. Castellanos spoke in English,
with an occasional Spanish word thrown in ? mainly to catch wandering attention.

“Mira, Juan! Mira, Ashley! (Look, Juan! Look, Ashley!),” Castellanos said. When she asked questions in English, the children answered in English.
But when she asked in Spanish, the children answered in that language.

While Westminister officials say the study bolsters the district’s approach,
others caution against drawing broad conclusions from it.

An analysis of the heavily Hispanic, 52,000-student Santa Ana Unified School District, where a variety of language-instruction approaches are employed, suggested that limited-English students become fluent much more slowly than generally believed and that no single instructional program is superior.

Douglas Mitchell, a professor at the University of California, Riverside,
who directed the Santa Ana study, said the seeming disparity in the findings of the two studies only points to the complexity of the bilingual issue.

Mitchell, who had not seen the Westminster report, said one possibility for the variance could be the differing demographics in the two districts.
“For reasons we still don’t understand, different population groups clearly respond differently to educational challenges,” he said.

“Some groups adapt more quickly to English than others.”

Three other school districts, all in Orange County, have been granted temporary bilingual waivers: Orange Unified, Savanna and Magnolia.

Register staff writer Tiffany Montgomery contributed to this report.

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