Plan closes California 'loophole'

Ban would let parents seek a waiver for kids, but the rules are tough

Even bilingual education foes praise Davis Bilingual Magnet School’s program for producing students who are fluent in two languages by the time they leave fifth grade.

But parents would lose the popular option, and most other bilingual education programs, if voters approve the proposed English for the Children-Arizona initiative this fall. Students who speak little English would be forced under the proposal to take a year of special English-only classes before they’re placed in regular classes.

Under the proposal, parents could ask for bilingual education for their children through waivers. But the requirements are rigid: The child must be at least 10 years old, already know English or have special needs. Even if these conditions are met, school administrators can deny the request without explanation.

Backers of the proposal say parents of limited-English students are getting the runaround today when they ask for their children to be taught in English.

One of them is Gloria Martinez, who has been trying for two years to get her grandchildren out of bilingual education at Mission View Elementary School. Her request was approved by the Tucson Unified School District, but she would have to drive the children to another school herself. She was unwilling to do that. A lawyer couldn’t help her.

So now the children fall behind in their schooling, she said, in a program that emphasizes cultural traditions, such as Mexican Independence Day.

“They don’t know what Veterans Day is, but they certainly knew what 16 de Septiembre was all about. It’s horrible. It’s an insult because their grandfather is a Vietnam veteran,” Martinez said.

A struggle to get out

Adrana Fernandez, who speaks only Spanish, said she had a hard time persuading her school principal to switch daughter Abiagael out of bilingual education. She soon became student of the month in first grade.

“In bilingual, she would learn only Spanish,” Fernandez said. “We are in the United States.”

Bilingual education advocates say that at least now laws are on the side of parents of children with limited English skills. Under the proposition, however, those parents would lose their choices.

The provision closes what backers of the proposal see as a loophole in the successful California initiative that gave rise to Arizona’s. Last school year, only about half of California’s 1.4 million limited-English students were enrolled in structured English immersion, according to the California Department of Education.

Some leaders of English for the Children-Arizona seem unclear about what the parental waiver clause allows.

While collecting signatures in early November, co-chairwoman Maria Mendoza told a prospective signer, who asked about parents who want bilingual education, that waivers are available.

“If parents choose to have waivers, it’s up to the administration to decide. There’s a provision for that,” Mendoza told the man, who decided to sign.

When a reporter later asked about the strict conditions set on waivers, including the requirement that a child be at least 10 years old to apply, Mendoza said, “I have not read that part, that section.”

Once she looked at the initiative again, she defended the provision: “These parents have to understand for these children to be successful in life they have to take advantage in the early grades.”

At the same time the proposition was moving forward, the Arizona Legislature expanded parental rights in bilingual education last year. Before this school year, districts were required only to notify parents of a student’s placement in programs. Parents could withdraw from a program by writing a letter.

Now, parents must sign off on a student’s placement in advance. Arizona congressmen are pushing a federal bill, awaiting final action in the Senate next month, that would make prior approval a requirement nationwide.

Still, few parents are bailing out of bilingual education, said Catherine Mayorga, the state Department of Education’s English acquisition director.

In TUSD, requests for the withdrawal of 67 students were submitted this school year, up from 11 requests two years ago, said Leonard Basurto, TUSDbilingual education director. That’s out of more than 15,000 children in bilingual programs,both students with limited English skills and fluent English speakers.

Sunnyside Unified School District records show requests are about the same this year as last.

“What it tells me is that parents are happy with bilingual education,” Basurto said.

Getting into Davis

Nowhere are they happier than at Davis Bilingual.

Many English-speaking parents used to sign up their children at birth for enrollment there. Now, students outside the neighborhood are selected by lottery. One year, more than 200 applied for 48 slots in the lottery.

Some families even move into the Barrio Anita neighborhood so their children can attend the school, said Principal Guadalupe Romero. Others give false addresses, like the one that turned out to be the school’s own garden.

More Spanish is taught at Davis than at most bilingual education programs in the country. After six weeks of English instruction, kindergartners and first graders are taught all in Spanish. They transition by fifth grade to a maximum of 30 percent English.

Mary Adkisson has watched her three blond, Irish-American children learn the language and culture through mariachi and folklorico groups.

Her oldest daughter, fifth-grader Lauren, is practically fluent in Spanish. She recently became one of the first Spanish-speaking reporters for the children’s newspaper Bear Essential News. Lauren said the instruction was hard at first, but she picked up Spanish quickly.

“The easy part was because they talked to us the whole day in it,” Lauren said. “They would say, ?Let’s go paint,’ and they would get out the paints and we would understand.”

Adkisson wants to see her 2-year-old get the same chance at Davis. “I’m praying he will be able to come to this school and get the same education my kids are getting,” she said. “If he would have to miss out on it, it would be a shame. It would be unfair.”

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