Vote On Bilingual Education Draws Fire

Academics: Parents are incensed over Orange trustees' unanimous decision aimed at ending the district's program.

ORANGE—Saying they were blindsided last month when the Orange Unified School District board voted to seek an end to bilingual education, Latino activists are organizing angry parents into an opposition movement after the fact.

“The parents really feel this is a racist decision that’s been made, and they’re not happy with this,” said Juan Carlos Ayala, whose brother attends school in the district. He is helping to organize the protest. “This is not over, I can tell you that right now. Parents are already determined to start taking part in protests.”

The seven trustees on the school board came to a rare unanimous decision on the issue Feb. 13, voting to hire consultants to prepare a waiver request from state laws that mandate that some students who are not native English speakers be taught in their native language in early primary grades.

About 1,200 Spanish-speaking pupils in kindergarten through the second grade are now in the district’s bilingual education program and would be most affected. About 6,800 students who speak 39 other languages are in some type of program for students with limited English proficiency, district officials said.

There are 28,000 students in the district.

While an alternative program for students who speak a non-English language is still in the early drafting stages, some officials have advocated the English immersion model. Under this method, students are taught academic courses entirely in English and then given intensive class time on the language itself after school and during the summer.

Trustee Rick Ledesma, himself a Latino who went through Orange schools before the era of bilingual education, has addressed crowds during the past week at six of the elementary schools effected. An accountant, he frequently wiped his brow and tensed his jaw while some parents jeered and accused him of, among other things, being a racist and speaking Spanish badly.

He nonetheless persisted in explaining the philosophical view of the board, that bilingual education is bad for the children. The only path to professional success is fluency in English, and prolonging the transition from Spanish just impedes children, he said.

“You can consider it a policy of segregation if we keep this bilingual education going,” he said.

But activists insist that the issue goes deeper, threatening the ability of Spanish-speaking children to cope in school later on if they miss concepts in the first crucial years.

Along with protests, they are considering taking a variety of actions, including legal action, although the protest leaders declined to elaborate on their plans at this time.

The bilingual education issue appeared on the trustees’ Feb. 13 published agenda, but some parents say there should have been announcements or forums held beforehand.

They were particularly incensed that administrators and trustees failed to inform or consult with parents on the district’s Bilingual Advisory Board, although officials frequently touch base with parents on issues such as school uniforms and attendance boundaries.

“The state needs to understand that the parents, community and bilingual teachers who were never consulted were not given the opportunity as professionals to voice their opinion,” said Celso Rodriguez, a bilingual resource teacher at Jordan Elementary School.

“You cannot disenfranchise a group of parents, and that is what is occurring. The parents no longer have the right to choose what is the best program for their kids,” he said. “I don’t see the board telling special ed. parents or gifted parents that they no longer have a choice.”

Ledesma said the board did not deliberately leave parents out. But the trustees felt so strongly that their action was best for the students, they simply made the decision in hopes of phasing in the new program by next fall, he said.

“There are many decisions this district makes that we don’t discuss with parents,” Ledesma said. “We also didn’t speak with English-speaking parents, and bilingual education affects everybody.”

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