Class shifts may occur

Schools: The district will meet with limited-English pupils' parents to review their Prop. 227 options.

CORONA—Spanish-speaking parents are supposed to have a choice on how their children learn in California public schools.

But some Corona-Norco parents say that hasn’t been happening.

Led by mothers at Corona’s Jefferson Elementary School, a group of parents is alleging that school officials have pushed the parents to choose one option: a class where instruction is mostly in English. And, they say, some schools offer no choice but a class in English.

“It looks like they have the options, but really it’s not there,” said Irma Ramirez, a parent and the president of the Corona-Norco Unified School District’s English Language Learners Advisory Committee.

The parents began complaining in March to the Corona-Norco school board and federal education officials. Now, school administrators say changes are on the way.

Corona-Norco school officials have scheduled meetings with parents this week to explain the three instruction choices for so-called English-language learners. Parents will be able to switch their child’s classroom programs. And more schools may offer more choices for children learning English if parents at the schools ask for them.

“It’s our obligation to make sure parents get a choice for the option they want,” Assistant Superintendent Sandy Johnson said.

The choice issue in bilingual education became prominent with passage of Prop. 227 in 1998.

California voters approved the measure, which restricts bilingual education, especially classes taught in native languages, such as Spanish. The measure calls for students learning English to be taught “overwhelmingly” in English through so-called English immersion. Parents can get waivers to choose bilingual education using their native tongue.

Corona-Norco school board member Bill Hedrick, a bilingual teacher in Rialto schools, took the parents’ issue to administrators.

He said that, across the state, about 70 percent of students learning English take immersion classes. About 20 percent learn in mainstream English classrooms, while 10 percent have a waiver for bilingual education.

Yet Hedrick discovered that nearly all limited-English-speaking students at Adams, Coronita, Garretson and Stallings elementary schools sit in classes taught predominantly in English.

“It is almost beyond belief that 100 percent of parents would select one option if they were truly offered all three,” Hedrick said. “Parents are entitled to a real choice. That’s the problem: There’s no real choice.”

Johnson, who oversees education programs for the district, said that under Prop. 227, the bilingual waiver need only be offered when 20 students at the same grade level request it. In Corona-Norco, only Jefferson Elementary has the program.

State law prohibits schools from recommending the bilingual option. Parents must request it.

Also, Johnson said, the law tells districts to suggest English immersion for those children who don’t have a good grasp of English. Officials must suggest English mainstream courses for those with a good command of English. In all cases, she said, parents have the final decision.

Corona-Norco’s bilingual programs have been under scrutiny for some time. Federal and state officials last year began reviewing the district’s services for students learning English.

Jefferson parents, with the help of the Mexican-American Political Association, filed a complaint in December with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights. They allege that parents have been coerced to choose English-only classrooms without being told of their children’s right to bilingual education. They also allege that the district has unqualified teachers for its students learning English, that the program for Spanish-speakers is not effective, that public meetings are conducted in English and information is provided only in English.

Federal officials referred the coercion allegation to the California Department of Education, which had already been investigating Corona-Norco’s bilingual programs. The state probe began in 2000 after a routine review in 1999 found violations in Corona-Norco programs for limited-English-speaking students, said Lauri Burnham, who oversees the state investigating unit. The 1999 violations have been fixed, but investigators will make sure they remain resolved, Burnham said. Also, state officials will review all other aspects of the program. A report is due within weeks.

Meanwhile, Hedrick, parents and Superintendent Pedro Garcia see the informational meetings as a positive step.

“Parents really did not understand the options,” Garcia said.

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