LAKE FOREST – Julie Healy and her family made the choice to put their son Bryce into a two-way immersion program four years ago. To her, it was a commitment her son was going to stick with.
He would learn to read and write in Spanish first and gradually learn English. Despite Bryce’s initial resistance, the third-grader is now bilingual.
And Healy wants her son’s unique education to continue – even though 61 percent of the state’s voters approved Proposition 227, which mandates English-only instruction.
Healy, with a core group of about 30 parents, teachers and administrators at Gates Elementary have gathered to fight the new English-immersion law.
“We made a choice to have our kids in this program,” said Healy, president of Advocates for Language Learning, a two-way immersion parent group. “And this law is taking that choice away.”
Parents at Gates are circulating petitions, researching on the Internet for loopholes in the law and investigating options. They’ve looked into waivers, charter schools and alternative programs – all to circumvent a the state’s mandate that children be taught in English.
Charter schools have become the buzz among parents and school officials looking to opt out of Prop. 227. Charter schools can define their own curriculum and deal with their own finances without adhering to all state requirements.
Parents at Las Palmas Elementary in San Juan Capistrano and board members in Santa Ana have talked about charters as one of many alternatives to legally get around Prop. 227.
But Robyn Tunstall, a teacher at Santiago Middle School in Orange – the county’s first charter school – warns bilingual advocates that basing a charter on a single issue is risky.
“A wrong reason to go charter is if a school is trying to retain a single motive, like bilingual,” Tunstall said. “If it’s to go around Legislature or get out from under a governing agency, it’s not doing what charters were meant to do. They were meant to create real reform.”
Tunstall said Jordan Elementary in Orange failed in its effort to become a charter because it was trying to preserve the bilingual program, while Orange school board members were trying to convert the entire district to English-only instruction.
Prop. 227’s co-author and Santa Ana schoolteacher Gloria Matta Tuchman has said the initiative was not intended to take away parental choice.
“This is not a sledgehammer approach,” said Tuchman after making the runoff for state schools superintendent. “The initiative was meant to give schools room to create a great deal of reform in how their students learn English.”
Tuchman says parental waivers written into the initiative allow parents to move their kids out of English-immersion programs after 30 days.
But Healy says the 30-day clause wouldn’t work with the Gates program, which strictly teaches English and Spanish speakers with 90 percent of Spanish in the first year. She remembers her own initial struggles with Bryce in the beginning years.
On the first days of school, Bryce would cling to his mother, sobbing. “Mommy, I don’t want to go. I speak English,” he pleaded. “I speak English.”
But Healy wiped the tears from her son’s brown eyes, brushed back his blonde hair. She stuck to her guns. Sealed her own fears. Tried to shut out the doubts her neighbors and relatives had planted: “What? He can’t read in English? What are you doing to this poor child? What kind of school is he going to?”
But those doubts are now gone, she said. Parents say the seven-year program has produced results: high test scores, bilingual fluency and critical-thinking skills.
And parents believe they have a district that will stand by them.
On Tuesday, Saddleback Valley Unified is set to approve two petitions submitted by Gates Elementary staff. One petition calls for an alternative program, saying the two-way immersion students need alternative teaching methods to learn Spanish and English at the same time. Petitions for alternative programs are approved through the state Superintendent of Schools Delaine Eastin, who has been endorsed by bilingual advocates.
The other petition is for a limited charter school. Under a limited charter, Gates would remain financially and administratively dependent on the Saddleback Valley Unified School District but be relieved of the English-immersion mandate that Prop. 227 would require within 60 days.
The state Legislature passed a new law raising the cap on charter schools from 100 to 250, starting in January 1999. Currently, the state has run over its 100 limit for charter schools for 1998.
The state Board of Education last week approved Orange County’s second charter Community Home Education Program for home schoolers. It is the 147th charter school in the state.
So if Gates or any other school chooses to go charter before September, it would have to ask for a charter waiver.
Last week, both Gates and Las Palmas schools asked the state board for a general waiver that would exempt the schools from the initiative’s guidelines.
Under Prop. 227, the state board is supposed to decide whether to grant waivers for alternative programs to English immersion. But a federal judge ended the state board’s right to grant waivers in March, after 227 was written. The state board is still discussing its role in defining waivers and clarifying rules in the proposition.
Even as Gates parents and teachers are embroiled in finding ways to save the school’s program, curious onlookers stop by the school for advice on how to start their own programs.
Dawn Atkinson and Anna Smith, two parents of children at University Park in Irvine, visited the school Wednesday. Despite the passage of Prop. 227, parents in Irvine are still exploring the possibility of starting a foreign-language instruction program at their school, said Atkinson.
“If I had a dual-immersion program in my neighborhood school, I’d jump through hoops to keep it,” said Atkinson. “It’s just a shame language programs have become such political hot potatoes.”
Ken Ackerman, a Gates parent, says parents, teachers, and administrators all are willing to jump through a few hoops.
“It’s a lot of paperwork for 334 kids, but it’s all worth it.”