District explores 'program of languages'

Santa Paula schools superintendent hopes proposal will win approval

Less than a month before California voters decide an initiative that could virtually end bilingual programs, Santa Paula school officials are exploring ways to expand them.

In a move that has earned both support and skepticism, the Santa Paula Elementary School District is considering a new program to teach English and Spanish to all students at two or three schools.

Just don’t call it a bilingual program.

To avoid the divisiveness swirling around bilingual education, Superintendent Bonnie Bruington calls the proposal a “program of languages.”

The idea is to teach English-speaking children in English during the morning, then in Spanish during the afternoon. Spanish-speakers would learn in their native language the first half of the day, then switch to English instruction.

For part of the day, the two groups would be mixed together and taught in both languages.

“This is truly in embryo form for us, but we’re moving along as quickly as we can because we think this is the proper time to do it,” Bruington said.

It is something Bruington has wanted to do for a while, she said.

She hopes to start the program, which needs the school board’s approval, this fall.

Bruington admits she is taking a big gamble. On June 2, voters will consider Proposition 227, which would give students who are not fluent in English one year to learn the language before moving into English-only classrooms. Parents could ask for waivers, but they would be difficult to get.

Polls show that most voters support the measure, written by Silicon Valley millionaire Ron Unz.

“If perchance the Unz initiative goes through, I’ll be the first one to ask for a waiver so we could do this,” Bruington said.

Not everyone in the district thinks the idea should be pursued.

“We have so many problems with just getting the kids on track with reading and math; I’m concerned that we’re biting off one more thing to chew,” parent Michelle Kolbeck said.

“Santa Paula really needs to zero in and get the basics down pat before we add too many other programs.”

One of every three students in the district is learning English. Most of those students learn in their native language while gradually building their English skills.

The district offers another program at Glen City School where English- and Spanish-speakers learn together in both languages, without being separated.

Bruington got the idea for the new language program from Pacheco Elementary School in San Luis Obispo, where her granddaughter attends school. The program started last year with kindergartners and has been expanded this year to include first-graders.

“We haven’t encountered anybody who’s doing this exactly the way we are,” Pacheco principal James Miller said.

Santa Paula is one of several districts in the state to show an interest in his school’s program, he said.

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