Districts Give Parents Final Say on Prop. 227

Schools will grant waivers, as law permits

The day after a state Appeals Court strengthened the ban on bilingual education, a class of Hayward second-graders studied the book, “Mi Papa y Yo Somos Piratas” (My Father and I are Pirates).

Like other school districts across the state, Hayward’s school district continues to grant immigrant children waivers that exempt them from the English-only wishes of voters who passed Proposition 227 last year.

Although Oakland, Berkeley and Hayward school districts were told by the court Monday that they could not excuse their entire school systems from Proposition 227, those districts offered bilingual education to thousands of students last year upon parents’ request and will continue to do so.

A year after the initiative requiring students to be taught “overwhelmingly” in English took effect, figures show that 40 percent of Oakland’s immigrant students — 6,800 children — used waivers to stay in bilingual classes. The same percentage holds in Hayward schools, where 2,278 English learners spent last year studying in their native language.

In Berkeley’s public schools, 14 percent of the 1,600 immigrant children had waivers.

“Parents have the last say, really,” said Wendy Lee, program manager of Oakland Unified’s bilingual student assessment center.

Monday’s court ruling reversed an Alameda County judge’s 1998 decision ordering the State Board of Education to consider the districts’ request to be excused from the English-only law.

Even though the new law allows parents to opt out of mainstream English classes by filling out annual waivers, the three East Bay school districts’ legal fight was over voters trying to control educational policies, said Marlin Foxworth, superintendent of Hayward schools.

School districts can offer waivers, but they are still beholden to sections of the law that require children age 10 and under to spend the first month of school in English-only classes, no matter what.

“It’s like dropping them in a pool when they don’t know how to swim,” said Sarah Gonzales, assistant superintendent for educational services in Hayward.

“Especially for the kindergartners,” she said. `’You take them from a nurturing home environment, drop them in a class where they don’t understand anything, then spend the rest of the year trying to repair the damage of that first month.”

Educators in Hayward are especially miffed at the court ruling because their bilingual education program has been tapped as one of the five best in the nation in the 1999 book, “Igniting Change for Immigrant Students.” The district just won a multimillion-dollar federal grant for a new bilingual program.

“I strongly resent the electorate, the person next door who knows nothing about how children acquire language, telling us how to teach children,” Gonzales said.

She is organizing a meeting Friday for bilingual education leaders to discuss next steps, which could include asking Oakland and Berkeley to join them in an appeal of this week’s ruling to the state Supreme Court. Neither Oakland nor Berkeley has decided whether to appeal.

In the meantime, the districts plan to continue the status quo — offering waivers.

What the three East Bay school districts really lost in the court ruling was local control, said Berkeley schools spokeswoman Karen Sarlo.

“Teachers in mainstream classes can’t tutor a child who is having language problems,” she said, “They can’t tailor their instruction to the type of students in the class. We know kids don’t come in one- size-fits all educational policies.”

But Proposition 227 co-sponsor and Silicon Valley businessman Ron Unz counters that parental choice means some parents just won’t choose bilingual programs, even though school districts think they should be there.

That is what happened in the Brentwood Union Elementary School District, where school officials polled immigrant parents last summer and found only six who wanted their children to be in bilingual classes. The response was so dismal that this year the K-8 district dropped bilingual education, said Linda Pearson, assistant superintendent of student services.

In the San Mateo-Foster City School District, less than 5 percent of the 1,800 English learners had waivers last year.

“Some parents don’t want waivers,” Unz said. “A lot of people in school districts have been doing bilingual education for many, many years and they strongly believe in it even if the parents don’t.”

Jose Zambrano, an Oakland parent with two children in bilingual classes, cautions against making assumptions about parents who reject waivers.

As president of the Oakland schools’ Bilingual District Advisory Committee, he has had to assure parents that they will not be turned over to immigration authorities if they fill out waiver forms.

“These forms are intimidating for some parents who don’t speak English, and they’re also incredibly inefficient,” Zambrano said.

Parents have to fill them out in person, once a year, for each child. Some can’t miss work and others don’t understand the process so they don’t get their children in bilingual classes even though they want them there, he said.

“For me, I want bilingual education because it helps my children retain two languages so they have one more tool to help them in the world,” he said.

His fifth-grade daughter has already graduated from bilingual classes and is on the mainstream track.

“My other children will follow her. And even after they leave bilingual classes, they will still be able to talk to someone in both languages,” he said.

Chronicle staff writers Julie Lynem, Elizabeth Bell contributed to this report.

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