Orange OKs English-only in schools

EDUCATION: The state must ultimately approve any changes in the district's bilingual program.

ORANGE, CA—More English might be spoken in classrooms under a proposal approved Thursday night by the Orange Unified school board.

If the state Board of Education approves the plan, Orange would become the latest Orange County district to join an English-only movement that seeks to fundamentally change the way speakers of other languages are taught in California schools.

Orange board members voted 6-0 in favor of the plan, which backers say will move non-English speakers closer to fluency.

District staff members will review the proposal and make suggestions. The state ultimately would have to approve any major changes in the district’s bilingual program.

Board members Robert Viviano, James Fearns and Rick Ledesma released the four-page proposal this week. The plan is short on details butincludes a few suggestions that board members acknowledged may not be legal.

The board members initially wanted to require children who do not pass a standardized test in English to take summer or after-school classes to master the language. They also wanted to put speakers of other languages into English-only classrooms.

Board members backed away from a measure to require after-school English classes. Fearns said Thursday afternoon that some suggestions may not fly.

“I don’t know if we’ll be able to mandate (after-school) classes; I don’t think you can say they have to go,” he said.

English-only instruction doesn’t mean the students wouldn’t get help in their own languages, Fearns said. Some still may need bilingual aides, but Fearns said he’d like to see teachers speak only in English.

Many teachers have spent years trying to master Spanish to meet the district’s old requirements, which saw as many as 100 teachers enrolled in Spanish classes each semester.

“That is going to be difficult in terms of morale,” said Pam de Loetz, who oversees the district’s special programs.

Orange has about 6,800 students classified as limited English proficient, a bureaucratic term used to describe children who don’t understand English well enough to follow along in class. About 1,000 of the students receive instruction in their native languages.

Parents have the choice of putting their children in English-only classes.

Some studies suggest that students who are taught in their own languages do better in school over the long run. If the goal is to move students quickly into the mainstream, other studies favor English immersion.

Janette Perez, a former bilingual teacher at Cambridge Elementary School, said she opposed the board’s action because she believes that children who are not fluent in English would not learn.

“They’re going backwards,” she said of the board.

The proposal is not likely to go into effect right away because it has to pass state and federal tests.

Federal law says that students who speak other languages must have access to the curriculum. That requirement prevents districts from dismantling bilingual-education programs.

The state law governing bilingual education hasexpired, but the state still has guidelines for educating students who cannot keep up in an English curriculum.

One of those guidelines says most students who cannot understand any English should be taught part of the time in their own languages. But since 1995, districts have been able to get waivers to the rule.

Districts can teach only in English, said Norm Gold, who oversees state compliance in bilingual education. But those districts’ plans would have to be based on “sound theory” to meet federal requirements, he said.

“Districts need evidence to support that theory, so it’s not just somebody’s wish list,” Gold said.

Westminster School District was the first in the state to apply for and get a waiver under the new rules. The waiver allows the district to teach in English, but with bilingual aides.

“The aides are the crux of our program,” said Tracy Painter, who oversees Westminster’s program. “That’s how we make sure we provide access to the curriculum. ” Only two other California districts, both in Anaheim, have applied for a waiver. Magnolia School District won permission, and Savanna School District recently sought approval.

Besides a statewide shortage of bilingual teachers, there are several other reasons why Orange County seems to be leading the movement toward English-only instruction, Painter said.

“I think in Orange County we do have a lot of veteran teachers, and it’s very difficult for them to conceive of becoming literate in a foreign language within the time limit before they retire,” she said.

De Loetz said everybody has the same goal.

“We all want English proficiency for our students,” she said.

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