Bilingual education is making a modest comeback in Orange County, with enrollment up 6.6 percent at a time when statewide numbers are falling, according to state Department of Education figures.

The increase comes more than three years after state voters passed Proposition 227 to immerse children in English – except those whose parents sign waivers – slashing bilingual-education enrollment to 6,954 students from 17,180 in one year. Since then, enrollment has slowly rebounded to reach 7,982 last year, the most recent figure available.

Even with the increase, mainly in Santa Ana Unified and Placentia-Yorba Linda Unified school districts, the percentage of Orange County children in bilingual classes is half the state average.

“Parents are given a choice here,” said Lilia Stapleton, a second-language programs specialist at Placentia-Yorba Linda Unified, where bilingual education rose last year to 1,236 students from 841. “It’s not huge from last year to this year, but we are continuing to experience an increase.”

The decision to sign a waiver is often intensely personal. Parents want to help with children’s homework, have them become literate in their native language or have an edge in the workplace eventually. Others prefer to teach Spanish at home and immerse kids in English at school, thinking it will help improve their grades and language skills.

Although the fervor surrounding the 1998 ballot initiative has faded, the issue still evokes strong opinions. Bilingual education comes in many forms, but the most common here begins mainly in Spanish, with some English instruction every day, and segues to a mainstream class by third or fourth grade.

A major goal of bilingual education is to let students keep up with academic skills, such as multiplication tables, while they also learn English, proponents say. In Santa Ana, which is 92 percent Hispanic, many also place a premium on being bilingual because they speak Spanish at home.

But opponents say students should be immersed in English to prepare for a professional life in the United States, especially since school is often the only place they can practice the language.

Veteran teacher Kim Huddleston transferred out of Edison Elementary School in Santa Ana when she saw the bilingual program increasing. Edison’s program rose from zero students in 1998-99 to more than 200 this year, about one-fifth of the school.

“I have worked with children that have come into kindergarten with no English and they go out my door reading beautifully,” said Huddleston, now at Franklin Elementary. “I think (bilingual education) is wrong.”

Many also are deeply concerned about test scores, and Santa Ana schools with large numbers of students in bilingual education have some of the lowest in the district, though many have posted gains recently. English-only fundamental schools and Taft Elementary have higher scores.

But district and school officials say it is unfair to blame bilingual education for low scores. Most schools with bilingual programs also have greater poverty, crowding and numbers of English-learners, which can contribute to lower scores. At Taft, 48 percent of the students are considered poor, compared with 90 percent at Edison.

Others say bilingual education is another way to teach students who are unsuccessful in regular English classes. Delia Bustos said a few years in bilingual education at Edison helped her daughter thrive later in an English-only class.

“I know this is a country of English,” Bustos said, “but it’s good for them to learn both languages.”

Statewide, districts are seeing different trends. Bilingual education rose in Riverside and San Diego counties last year but fell in Los Angeles County, according to state reports.

A visit to Edison shows the program in practice, with books and posters in English and Spanish. In one class, students listen to English on headphones as they follow along in a book. In another, they speak to the teacher in Spanish as they learn what a word looks like or how to write a capital letter.

“Yo juego,” kindergarten teacher Andrea Mirabal said, showing a group of rapt students the Spanish phrase “I play.”

In Santa Ana, some teachers worried that school officials were encouraging parents to sign waivers instead of making decisions on their own.

Like Anaheim City School District, where bilingual education has declined, Santa Ana holds annual meetings to show parents their options. At Edison, where some parents have expressed unhappiness with the program, several others said they did not feel pressured to favor one program or another.

Overall, 5.3 percent of the county’s 150,000 English-learners are in bilingual classes. Santa Ana has the most, with 6,302 students, and smaller programs are in Anaheim, Capistrano and Saddleback Valley Unified. Statewide, bilingual-education enrollment has fallen 1.6 percent to 167,163 students out of 1.5 million English-learners.

“We see the advantages of knowing more than one language,” said Santa Ana Unified Superintendent Al Mijares. However, he added, “it’s important for me that I don’t let people become too comfortable in their primary language that they don’t move into the second language.

“That’s my concern.”

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