After an hour of English instruction, Sandra Magallon’s first-graders spent a recent morning studying the soft “g” sound in Spanish, as in gigante and general.
Bilingual education was supposed to become all but extinct under Proposition 227, which California voters passed in June. Instead, the scene at Larsen School in Oxnard is being repeated across Ventura County, with thousands of parents using an escape clause in the law that lets children return to bilingual classes.
Following one month of mandatory English instruction, 83 percent of El Rio’s eligible students are back in bilingual classrooms. In the Oxnard School District, more than 60 percent of limited-English students are learning partly in Spanish. The rate is 45 percent in Moorpark schools.
Those figures outrage members of the pro-227 campaign, English for the Children. In their opinion, school districts should look more like Santa Paula Elementary and Fillmore Unified, where just 4 percent and 2 percent of parents, respectively, want their children exempt from the English mandate.
“These districts are violating the law, there is no question about it,” said Sheri Annis, English for the Children spokeswoman. She said the campaign will take legal action against districts that don’t comply with the law.
Local school leaders beg to differ. They say they’re fulfilling a legal and moral duty to give parents the program they want — and most parents want bilingual education.
What the law requires
Proposition 227 requires children be taught “overwhelmingly” in English. Parents can get a waiver if their child has “special physical, emotional, psychological or educational needs.”
If children are under 10, they must first spend 30 days learning in English. To apply for waivers, parents must visit the school and learn about the different programs.
Neither the state nor the Proposition 227 campaign is tracking the number of bilingual education requests. But if Ventura County is any indication, the numbers are all over the map.
In Oak Park and Thousand Oaks, not a single parent asked for bilingual education. Only a handful of students there do not speak fluent English, and schools have not offered bilingual education in the past.
Across the county, in Oxnard and the neighboring communities of Port Hueneme and El Rio, the flood of waiver requests came as no surprise to school leaders. Many Spanish-speaking families live there, and the schools have had strong bilingual programs.
But there are some surprises. In Fillmore Unified, where about a third of the 3,600 students were in a bilingual program last year, there are fewer than 20 requests for it this year.
Assistant Superintendent Jane Kampbell credits teachers for doing a great job teaching students in English. However, the district also took a different approach in telling parents about the new law.
In Oxnard, El Rio and Moorpark, schools sent letters to parents and held a series of meetings, including some on weekends, to inform them of the new law. Some teachers also called parents. Fillmore, on the other hand, held no meetings but did send a letter to parents.
District efforts criticized
English for the Children believes the efforts in the Oxnard area go too far. Annis said one Oxnard School District flier, for example, describes the English-only program negatively but makes the bilingual program sound desirable.
“Ventura County, and especially Oxnard, seems to be one of the most aggressive in terms of soliciting waivers,” Annis said.
Ventura County is not the only place to return thousands of children to bilingual classes. In the San Diego Unified School District, 75 percent of limited-English children have waivers. In the Bay Area community of Mountain View, it’s 99 percent.
Annis also attacked local school districts for approving so many waivers — 95 percent or more — instead of granting them only in rare cases.
Local school officials say they have acted legally and impartially.
“The schools didn’t push the waivers. The Hispanic parents in our community demanded the waivers,” said Louise Platt, principal of Larsen School. That campus is part of the Hueneme School District, where 82 percent of immigrant parents requested bilingual education.
Larsen parent Dulce Trejo said it was entirely her decision to seek a waiver for her 6-year-old daughter, Narda.
“It’s important that she learn English, but also for her not to fall behind in other academic areas,” Trejo said in Spanish.
Stephanie Purdy, Oxnard’s manager of English language development, said districts are granting most waivers because they have to. Regulations from the state Board of Education say waivers shall be granted unless a school has “substantial evidence” that a child would be better off in an English-only class.
“The parents have the right to be in bilingual or be in English (programs),” added Rio Superintendent Yolanda Benitez. “How can you tell a parent, ‘You don’t have a choice?’ This is America. Of course we have choices.”
While the 227 campaign believes there are schools aggressively pushing bilingual education, some Santa Paula teachers complain that their district is doing just the opposite.
Although nearly a third of the elementary district’s children do not claim English as their native language, only 4 percent of their parents asked for bilingual education. Some teachers believe the district discouraged waivers by holding too few meetings, too late in the school year and at times when parents were at work.
“I think there should have been open communication all summer long, not only with parents but with teachers,” said Coco Aguirre, a bilingual teacher at McKevett School.
Some Los Angeles teachers have similar complaints, alleging the Los Angeles Unified School District has intimidated parents seeking waivers.
Jeff Davies, a Santa Paula assistant superintendent, said his district told parents about the new law as required and has “tried to be as fair and honest and objective as we could.”
Hueneme Superintendent Robert Fraisse said he expects the number of students in bilingual programs to drop next year because by then, parents will be more familiar with the English immersion program. Districts also are waiting for clearer state guidelines, and that could affect the number of waivers granted.
“This is a very complex issue, and we intend to deal with it head-on,” Fraisse said. “We are not done with it at all. We are looking forward to creating a new program under the law that will work hopefully better than any program we’ve had in the past.”
In the meantime, the 227 campaign says it will be keeping close watch.
“We don’t want to take legal action. We’d rather districts spend the time investing in a good, sheltered English immersion program rather than defending a lawsuit,” Annis said. “We’re trying to give them as much time as possible to fall in line.”