District requests bilingual-education waiver

Schools ask to teach classes in English and Spanish only

WESTMINSTER, CA—The elementary school district does not have a single teacher who speaks Hmong.

Nor does it have any teachers who speak Tigrinya, Gujarati, Ilocano, Tongan, Lithuanian, Arabic, Pashto, Tagalog, Palaun, Romanian, Urdu, Greek, Mandarin, Samoan or Hindi.

Technically, this is a violation of state bilingual education laws, which require school districts to provide bilingual-education teachers in every foreign language spoken by 50 or more students.

To enforce the rule, the California Department of Education revokes bilingual education funds of districts that fail to comply with its bilingual education laws.

Various state education codes spell out requirements for teacher credentials, training and curriculum for bilingual classes.

The California Department of Education stopped monitoring some of these requirements in June 1987, when the laws expired.

Legislators, who write state education laws, included expiration dates to give themselves a chance to review the effectiveness of the expired programs.

The 1,941 children in the Westminster School District who speak one of 40 foreign languages or dialects are tutored by classroom aides, mostly college students, rather than teachers.

The financially strapped Westminster district receives about $ 250,000 annually in state education funds designated for limited-English programs, said Ray Rodriguez, Westminster’s bilingual-education coordinator.

The money pays for 23 Vietnamese-speaking teaching assistants and 18 Spanish-speaking teaching assistants to work in the 16-school district’s kindergarten through eighth-grade schools.

“Our commitment is still there for these students,” Rodriguez said.

To avoid violating the law, and to protect its bilingual funding, the district earlier this month asked the state to allow it to teach only in English and Spanish.

District and California Department of Education officials said the request is only a technicality that protects funds for the limited-English program already in place.

This is the first time Westminster has asked for the exemption, Rodriguez said. District bilingual education funds never have been threatened and the district always has made efforts to meet the state guidelines, he said.

Westminster has 7,500 students from Westminster, Midway City and portions of Huntington Beach and Garden Grove.

The majority of foreign languages spoken by students are Vietnamese, with 872 children listed with limited English ability; Spanish, 801;

Cantonese, 61; Korean, 47; Lao, 28; and Cambodian, 19.

The 113 other students listed with limited English skills speak vari ous languages and dialects from Europe, Asia, the Polynesian islands, India and Central Asia.

Parents fill out forms stating their child’s native language, but sometimes are not specific or do not know the English word for their language, officials said.

For example, district records show four students speaking Indian, which is not a specific language. District officials said they do not know what country two students listed as speaking Arbacie come from, or what the English name for that language is.

The district has one certified bilingual-education teacher, two teachers certified for teaching high-school Spanish, one bilingual Vietnamese teacher and seven other teachers with varying abilities in Spanish.

Spanish is not included in the exemption because the availability of Spanish-speaking teachers and printed learning materials makes it easy for the district to comply with the law, Rodriguez said.

Though Vietnamese is spoken by more students in the district than Spanish, there is a shortage of certified Vietnamese teachers and bilingual Vietnamese learning materials, Rodriguez said. The same is true for Cantonese, he said, making it difficult to meet the state law.

The Vietnamese and Spanish language aides teach mostly in the elementary schools, where they reinforce classroom instructions in the child’s primary language and translate lessons.

It is not unusual for school districts to ask for an exemption from the bilingual-education law, said Leroy Hamm, a bilingual-education consultant at the California Department of Education who handles such requests.

The state education board grants four or five such exemptions every month, Hamm said. He reviews each district’s proposal to see if adequate efforts are being made to teach limited English students before making a recommendation for approval or denial, he said.

No district has been denied an exemption among 80 to apply for one since June 1987, Hamm said.

The bilingual-education law expired in June 1987, and no new law has replaced it. Hamm said California school districts wonder how to comply with other state and federal laws that require fair and equal opportunity to education for non-English speaking students, Hamm said.

A special state education committee is reviewing ways districts can provide adequate instruction to small, scattered groups of children who speak foreign languages, Hamm said.

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