Pedro Orozco of Norwalk started school in 1980 knowing only two words in English: hello and goodby. Last year he won an essay contest about bilingual education, and this year he is finishing eighth grade at John Glenn High School (which contains grades eight through 12) — taking a course of study that includes science, algebra, band and an advanced language program.

Pedro’s prize-winning essay credited much of his school success to bilingual education. He took part in that program from kindergarten to third grade at Edmondson School. But now the kind of program that helped Pedro Orozco must depend strictly on local school districts’ initiatives, because the Legislature has just dropped its efforts to renew the state’s law. That retreat, coupled with last year’s veto by Gov. George Deukmejian of a bill to extend the program, sends a bad signal to Latino and Asian immigrant students who are increasingly filling California classrooms.

As a result of a 1974 U.S. Supreme Court case that originated in San Francisco, school districts must provide instruction in students’ native languages. The federal guidelines are far less stringent than are those that California had enacted but let expire last year. Without a strong and explicit state law, it’s going to be easier for local districts to dismantle bilingual programs if they want to do so.

This year Assembly Speaker Willie Brown (D-San Francisco) and other Democrats had included bilingual education in legislation to extend a handful of special programs that help handicapped, low-income and gifted students in an effort to pressure the Republicans. But now they realize that this approach jeopardizes the other programs and have sadly thrown in the towel. That leaves local districts largely on their own.

The Los Angeles Unified School District, for example, committed itself this spring to expanding its efforts based on an approach developed at Eastman Avenue Elementary School in East Los Angeles. The students take basic courses in their own language — Spanish, in the case of Eastman students — so they don’t fall behind while learning English. They join English-speaking students for art, music and physical-education classes.

With 163,000 students who speak little or no English, Los Angeles school officials are only too aware of the challenge, and they have demonstrated a willingness to act on their own. Many other districts are not as conscientious. They need the prodding — and the financial resources — of the state behind them to offer the kind of bilingual program that has helped youngsters like Pedro Orozco.

Pedro did his part. Last year, at 12, he testified before an Assembly committee considering extending the bilingual-education program. He helped sway the votes of two Republican assemblymen. It’s too bad that more of the grown-ups in Sacramento didn’t listen.

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