English-only school plan divides Santa Barbara

SANTA BARBARA — A group of angry parents berated school board members who favor eliminating bilingual education in Santa Barbara. One teacher even accused the board of institutional racism.

Some of the 52 speakers at Wednesday night’s school board meeting yelled at board members. One refused to relinquish the podium after her allotted time ended.

“You can’t stop us at the border, and you can’t stop us from speaking our language!” shouted Angelina Diaz, a longtime Santa Barbara resident.

She was among more than 100 people who gathered outside the school board room to protest Superintendent Michael Caston’s recommendation to begin teaching elementary schoolchildren only in English beginning in September.

All five board members have voiced support for Caston’s plan. A vote on the issue is scheduled at the group’s Jan. 14 meeting.

Bilingual teacher Susan Sarnoff claimed the school district has asked teachers for input on the proposal and then ignored their advice.

“The school board, made up of five Anglo representatives, has excluded their main constituency from the process of decision-making,” Sarnoff said. “It’s a perfect example of institutionalized racism.”

Sarnoff and other local bilingual education supporters have formed a committee to explore legal challenges to Caston’s proposal.

Caston said low test scores by Hispanics and a new state mandate requiring all students to be tested in English this spring influenced his proposals.

Schools outside Santa Barbara that have had success teaching only in English also encouraged his decision, Caston said.

“We don’t want to take away their language, culture or heritage,” he said. “We don’t envision a 5-year-old coming to our district and being thrown into an all-English environment. ? It’s not about a sink-or-swim environment.”

Under Caston’s plan, second-language instruction would be provided 30 minutes per day to all students who need it. Currently, the bilingual program requires teachers to instruct in English at least 50 percent of the school day.

In addition, new students with limited English skills would be encouraged to enroll in summer school classes.

Caston also recommended that board members seek a legal expert to help them obtain a waiver of the state Education Code requirement that districts teach students in their primary language.

Less than a handful spoke in support of Caston’s plan. One of them, Cleveland School parent Karen Eberhard, expressed concern about what her daughter is learning because she has been forced into a bilingual classroom where some lessons are said in English, and then repeated in Spanish.

“There’s not an English-only option and that’s at the expense of my daughter’s education,” she said. “I support an English-immersion program with assistance in Spanish.”

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