Many school districts waivering on Prop. 227

Parents request bilingual classes

Some East Bay school districts that started the school year by complying faithfully with the English-only tenets of Proposition 227 have now begun to turn back, quietly and legally, to bilingual education.

Enough parents in the West Contra Costa and Mt. Diablo school districts have requested that their children receive instruction in their native language to trigger formation of classes conducted primarily in Spanish.

.At one Bay Point school, 200 of 205 families of students who last year were in bilingual classes have turned in applications to go back to bilingual instruction. Now the school is trying to decide what to do with the five children who want the English immersion promised to them under the law. .A Concord elementary school has received a smattering of such applications, but would have to switch many children among classrooms to constitute English-only and bilingual classrooms.

Prop. 227, which passed easily last June, mandated that all California children be taught “overwhelmingly” in English, and that limited-English students be given a one-year, structured English-immersion program. But it provided an option for parents who believed their children could not learn enough unless some native-language instruction was allowed: If they were dissatisfied with English immersion after 30 days, they could apply for waivers based on their children’s individual educational needs.

The 30 days are up. School principals are reviewing waiver requests, redesignating classrooms from English immersion to bilingual, and switching some children’s classroom assignments to form new bilingual classes.

“A lot of districts are not complying,” said Sheri Annis, spokeswoman for Prop. 227. “Some principals and administrators are blatantly trying to circumvent the law. Some are trying to frighten parents into signing waivers and some are just continuing the same old programs.”

Most districts say they are trying hard to follow the law, while balancing the needs of the children and desires of the parents. In West County, about three-quarters of the classrooms that would have been bilingual if not for the passage of Prop. 227 will be “alternative primary language” classes; the other quarter will be the structured English-immersion classrooms prescribed by Prop. 227.

“We have changed the name from ‘bilingual’ to ‘alternative primary language’ to represent our renewed focus on English language acquisition,” said Toni Oklan-Arko, bilingual coordinator for the West County school district. “I spoke at each of our school sites and said, ‘There will never be business as usual again in any of these classrooms.'”

That the district received enough waiver requests from parents in the Richmond and San Pablo areas to retain bilingual education in most schools did not surprise Oklan-Arko.

“First, you have to know that the selection of bilingual classes has always been voluntary, so these were parents who had been requesting bilingual education for their children,” she said. “And second, voters in those communities overwhelmingly voted against Prop. 227.”

In the Mt. Diablo district, bilingual coordinator Wayne Miller estimates that there will be one-third fewer bilingual classes than last year’s 25. He does not expect to see any bilingual classes at the middle school level.

At Shore Acres Elementary School in Bay Point, virtually every child who was in a bilingual class last year is likely to receive bilingual education again this year. Principal Bonnie Daines said there were 205 students assigned to bilingual classes prior to the passage of Prop. 227, and that those classrooms were subsequently redesignated for English immersion at the beginning of school. The families of 200 of the 205 students have applied for waivers, so those classrooms will revert to bilingual classrooms as soon as Daines completes the paperwork.

“My desk is littered with waivers,” Daines said. “This takes an enormous amount of time, a huge administrative expenditure that is not covered by anything in the law.”

Daines’ biggest problem is the five students for whom she must provide instruction overwhelmingly in English. Her school is so crowded that she is already busing out 30 students to other Mt. Diablo district schools. She is hoping that the district will approve operating a classroom that would be split between bilingual and English immersion instruction, so she can continue to accommodate the five students at their neighborhood school.

“You won’t notice much difference in the classrooms when they switch from English immersion to bilingual instruction,” Daines said. “A little more Spanish, yes, especially when they’re teaching reading at the lower grades. But the classes at the grade 4-5 level are likely to be exactly the same, because those kids are quite fluent and on their way out (of bilingual education).”

Daines said she will not necessarily approve all the waiver requests. The parents of some students in regular English classrooms have applied for bilingual education, and she will consult the teachers about whether these students are better served by teaching in English.

Principal Felix Avila of Meadow Homes Elementary School in Concord said he seems to have a more complicated situation than Shore Acres because there are fewer waiver requests. He has just about enough requests for one bilingual class at each grade level, but may have to switch students’ classroom and teacher assignments — plucking a few students out of each class to make the one bilingual class and then shuffling a few English-only students into their spots to reconstitute a classroom of 20 students.

“I’ve been thinking about it,” Avila said. “It’s difficult because the teachers and students have just gotten to know each other.”

Avila is wary about making changes and then receiving another batch of waiver requests that would trigger even more changes. He has the feeling that more parents are interested in bilingual education but haven’t followed through on picking up the waiver forms and filling them out. So he plans to publicize the waiver rules one more time before making any decisions.

In Pittsburg, very few parents have submitted waiver requests, so the district will continue to run the English-immersion classes it started last month.

Livermore school district is just beginning to contact parents and inform them of options, with the possibility of creating several bilingual classes for students inadequately served by English immersion.

The Oakland and Berkeley school districts have carried out Prop. 227, but hope that the state Board of Education will hear their requests for districtwide waivers so that they can opt out of English immersion. Atsuko Brewer, director of bilingual education for the Oakland school district, said each teacher was provided with a 30-day instructional package to help abide by the new rules, but that teachers are on their own since the 30 days expired. She believes that more primary language now is being used in classrooms, “about the same as last year.”

Meanwhile, the Prop. 227 backers say they are gathering evidence against the districts resisting the law, which was approved by 61 percent of voters in June. Annis said her office serves as a clearinghouse for disgruntled teachers and parents whose schools or districts are not carrying out “the will of the people.”

“What we’ll have to decide is which districts to seek legal action against,” Annis said. “Once we win, the others will fall into compliance.”

Pam King covers schools and education issues. You can reach her at 925-977-8406 or [email protected]

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