In the debate over the best way to teach children who speak little or no English, it seems logical that the first school districts to rebel against bilingual education would be in Orange County — an area long known for its conservative politics.

While immigrant parents in Los Angeles were demanding that their children be taught in English, trustees in four Orange County districts were staging a rebellion of their own. All sought waivers from the state Board of Education to teach students predominantly in English.

“(Bilingual education) helps to foster the notion that students can survive in America without really knowing the language,” said Bill Lewis, president of the Orange Unified school board.

The county’s demographics have shifted rapidly over the last two decades, propelling issues like bilingual education to the forefront, points out Mark Baldassare, a University of California-Irvine professor who heads an annual survey of Orange County social issues. In 1980, Hispanics made up 14 percent of Orange County’s population; by 1996 their proportion had jumped to 27 percent. Asians, who were 4 percent of the population in 1980, were 12 percent in 1996.

“What’s going on in Orange County is a clash between the new demographics and the old political profile of Orange County,” Baldassare said.

And while school boards are non-partisan, Baldassare argues that the area’s traditionally conservative politics still influence the debate.

The Orange County districts could have taken a low-profile route, citing their inability to hire enough trained bilingual teachers and seeking a waiver from the state Department of Education — like many other districts throughout the state have done. Instead trustees sought relief from the state board — a sign that their desire not to offer primary language instruction was based more on philosophy than on practical issues.

Petition ends up in court

Four districts — Orange, Savannah, Westminster and Magnolia — all filed similar petitions. But Orange Unified’s January 1997 petition ended up in the courts, triggering a chain of events that could significantly alter the way children who speak little or no English are taught in California.

A coalition of community groups sued the district in July 1997 to block the waiver. Then, last month, a Sacramento Superior Court judge issued a preliminary ruling that the state board had no right to require districts to seek waivers, because the California law that required students be taught in their native languages expired in 1987.

Less than a week later, the state Board of Education lifted its requirement that school districts like Orange seek permission for the right to teach non-English speaking children in English.

Those recent actions have alarmed advocates of bilingual education, who fear that districts may no longer feel obligated to teach students in their native language. They say students could be left foundering in classrooms where teachers speak a language they can’t fully comprehend.

Proposition 227, the June initiative that would all but eliminate bilingual classes, has prompted more fear among bilingual advocates because it says students are to learn English by being taught in English. However, whether that allows for the use of a student’s primary language in class is still up for debate.

Orange County educators believe their program would comply with Proposition 227 and the initiative’s backers agree, even though teachers and aides still speak and repeat concepts to students in the children’s native language.

Change in the classroom

Last year, the walls of Lynn Hollis’ kindergarten classroom were covered with posters in Spanish. The shelves were filled with Spanish books and the teacher used mostly Spanish to communicate with her students. But this year, the alphabet is in English and so are the books in her classroom at California Elementary.

During a lesson on the Mother Goose rhyme “Hey Diddle Diddle,” Hollis moved back and forth between languages. First, she read the story in English, then repeated it in Spanish. When she introduced words from the story to her students, she said them in both English and Spanish.

“Do you remember what this is?” she asked, holding a dish in her right hand.

“Plato,” replied the little boy named David.

“That’s right, that’s what this is in Spanish,” she said. “In English this is a dish.”

Hollis said she’ll rely on Spanish when she wants to reinforce a concept, as in the exchange with David.

Neil McKinnon, Orange’s assistant superintendent for education services, is confident the district is moving in the right direction. The number of students who are re-classified as proficient in English increased slightly in 1997, he points out, and anecdotal evidence suggests students are learning English more quickly.

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