WESTLEY—English is the native language of Luanne Krekelberg’s daughters, which means they’re in the minority at Grayson Elementary School.
Sixty percent of the students at the small school in western Stanislaus County speak mostly Spanish. And that puts Krekelberg at the center of a debate that goes far beyond the town of Grayson.
“Bilingual education is just a huge, hairy issue,” said Daphne Magnuson, communications director for a nonprofit group called U.S. English, based in Washington, D.C. “We pride ourselves on our heritage of being kind and inclusive, but at some point, it might be harmful.”
For Krekelberg, a former two-term PTA president at Grayson school, that point has arrived.
Krekelberg believes that teachers put so much effort into helping her fourth-grade daughter’s Spanish-speaking classmates, they didn’t push the few English-only kids to a higher level.
“I think the program is very good for those children who are there,” Krekelberg said. “I just feel my children are not getting the best education they could get. The teachers put (English-only pupils) pretty much on hold while they help the others catch up.”
When Krekelberg’s younger daughter appeared to be slipping into the same no-growth pattern in kindergarten, Krekelberg requested — and received — a transfer for both children out of the Patterson Unified School District. Her children are now enrolled seven miles away at Shiloh Elementary School, which has only a handful of students with limited English skills.
“I came to the conclusion that schools in California are trying to make everyone average,” Krekelberg said. “That’s not right because when they get into college, they’re in for a shock.”
For the past two decades, legislation and federal grants have helped to make English as a Second Language courses common throughout California. They now reach 894,000 students who speak any of more than 48 languages as their principal language.
But that number represents only 77.6 percent of children who need the extra help, according to the state’s Bilingual Education Office. There just aren’t enough resources for the others, spokesman Jim Grees said.
The need grows every day throughout immigrant-rich California, where the percentage of Anglo students in public schools plummeted from 75 percent in 1967 to 43.4 percent two years ago. The number of students who speak limited English has doubled in the last decade.
In Modesto City Schools, the population of students with limited English skills has ballooned 134 percent — to 6,100 — in the past seven years. That number is higher than it is in 97 percent of all districts in California, according to district officials.
Eighty-five percent of students at Grayson School in Westley — which Krekelberg fled — are Hispanic. The school has the highest percentage of limited English students in Stanislaus County, according to California Learning Assessment System statistics.
The school is located near migrant farmworker housing, which helps to explain why the number of students drops from 350 during planting and harvesting months to 250 in the winter.
But educators insist Krekelberg’s case is isolated.
“The program is very well thought out” and works well for both Spanish- and English-speaking children, said Grayson Principal Renee Regacho.
Grayson’s youngest pupils are segregated by language in the morning — to make sure they are fed material they can digest — then are brought together in all-English sessions in the afternoon. English lessons are phased in more and more as they get older, and by fifth-grade, instruction is nearly all in English, Regacho said.
Krekelberg is the only parent who has voiced concerns about lack of attention for English-speaking pupils, according to Regacho and Patterson Unified School District Superintendent Keith Daniel. And they noted that Krekelberg’s son, now in eighth-grade, performed well in classes.
All true, Krekelberg said. But she said the family moved to Westley when her son was in the third-grade and had already formed good learning habits.
Jim Boulet, legislative director for English First, a Virginia-based organization working to eliminate bilingual education, said Krekelberg is definitely not alone.
“If you listen to Spanish all day long and a little bit of English, which language are you going to learn?” Boulet said. He claimed that most non-English-speaking parents are upset that their children aren’t learning English fast enough or well enough to prepare them for the future.
Local English as a Second Language educators couldn’t disagree more strongly.
“The better the bilingual program we offer, the better level of education for all kids,” said Claudia Lockwood, bilingual education coordinator for Stanislaus County. “As we raise the level of academic achievement (for limited English students), the level raises for all kids.”
Is it possible to go too far?
“I don’t think we’ve gone nearly far enough,” Lockwood said. “We can’t afford not to help every child as much as we can.”
And that includes English-only pupils, she said.
Said Pat Dimond, who oversees bilingual education in the Sylvan Union School District, “I think there’s a general concern that a lot of funds are going toward special needs and children with a second language.”
But no parent has complained that the balance is tipping in favor of non-English speakers, she said.
Ditto for Carol Quinlan, public information officer for Modesto City Schools. That district is 32 percent Hispanic and 50 percent white.
Bill Hoobler, president of the Patterson district’s board of trustees, said his son has done fine in bilingual classrooms.
“Parents hear horror stories and they usually get blown out of proportion,” Hoobler said.
Krekelberg said she remains fond of many parents and educators at Grayson school.
“I’m not a fanatic,” she said. “I had a lot of ties. I just had to do what’s best for my children.”
Facts about billingual education in California:
* In 1967, 75 percent of students in kindergarten through 12th-grade were through 12th-grade were Anglo. In the 1991 – 92 school year, 43.4 percent were Anglo, 36.1 percent Hispanic, 8.6 percent black and 8 percnet Asian.
* The number of students with limited English skills has double in 10 years and now represents 22 percent of all students.
* One-third of all kindergarten students have limited skills in English.
* The number of students with limited English skills has increased six times faster than the general student population in the last decade.