Oakland Schools In Trouble Over Bilingual Classes

District could face fines in 3 months

OAKLAND—After failing to teach immigrant students to speak English for more than a decade, the Oakland schools’ bilingual program faces multimillion-dollar sanctions unless the district makes improvements soon.

State and federal officials will return to bilingual classes this fall to see whether enough students are learning English.

Nearly one-third of Oakland’s 54,000 schoolchildren speak a language other than English at home, yet each year only 1 percent of them are graduated into English-only classes, according to the California Department of Education, which inspected district schools in March.

Statewide, seven percent of children advance from bilingual to English classes annually.

Although bilingual education in California schools was abolished with the passage of Proposition 227 in 1998, the law allows parents to apply for waivers to keep their children in bilingual classes. In Oakland, 40 percent of the district’s immigrant students — 6,800 children — use waivers to stay in bilingual classes.

The state must regulate bilingual programs to ensure they are teaching children all core subjects, including English. State bilingual education rules stem from a 20-year-old lawsuit brought by a group of Latino parents who sued California for failing to monitor the progress of their Spanish-speaking children.

Oakland schools Superintendent Dennis Chaconas agrees with state findings that the district is doing a miserable job of testing non-English speakers, which that keeps teachers from being able to tailor instruction to each student’s proficiency level.

Chaconas has demanded that all children who do not speak English at home must be tested for language proficiency by mid-October and placed in an appropriate program. Scores will be passed to teachers, bilingual teachers and parents.

His goal is to graduate all students into English-only instruction by the fifth grade.

He has moved the district’s bilingual coordinator back into the classroom and has put the program in the hands of his two new assistant superintendents, both of whom have extensive backgrounds in curriculum development and accountability.

Chaconas has no time to waste.

“Normally we would give a school district a year to comply, but in this case, there’s been so many broken promises with Oakland that we’re going to give three months and consider sanctions next,” said Stuart Greenfeld, the state’s assistant superintendent of public instruction.

Fines could total $5 million, state education officials said. But if Oakland makes improvements, the state could reduce the amount. The federal Office of Civil Rights also could impose fines.

“This has been a problem ever since I joined the district in 1989,” said school board President Dan Siegel. “I think kids learn English faster from TV and the outside world than they do in the Oakland schools.”

In documents signed with the state Education Department and federal civil rights officials in 1997 and 1999, Oakland promised that all 58 of its elementary schools would be in compliance by August 1999.

But in a spot check of 11 elementary schools last spring, state education officials found only 15 of 5,025 students had learned enough English to leave bilingual programs between March 1999 and March 2000.

The report placed most of the blame with administrators for failing to track the progress of students learning English and evaluate the district’s bilingual program to make needed changes.

“We found that 60 percent of the English-learner students in those 11 schools were not getting any English language development help because they were in mainstream English classes,” said Lauri Burnham, one of the report’s authors.

Monitors found Asian children in Spanish bilingual classes at Franklin Elementary. Some teachers at Webster Academy had to share bilingual books because there weren’t enough to go around, and some Sequoia Elementary teachers did not have any texts at all.

Parents who get waivers exempting their children from state-mandated English-only instruction can select from among four separate bilingual programs to help their children learn English. Some classrooms had children under all four programs, making it extremely difficult for one teacher to manage, the report said.

The report said Melrose Elementary School was the only school of the 11 reviewed that was following the district’s bilingual master plan.

“I think they would have yanked our bilingual funding this year if it weren’t for Chaconas and his commitment to fix this,” Siegel said.

E-mail Meredith May at [email protected].

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