S.J. school seeks to protect bilingual program

Waiver would ensure survival of Spanish-English approach

Parents at San Jose Unified’s dual immersion Spanish-language school may soon ask state schools chief Delaine Eastin for permission to become an alternative campus — a special designation that exempts it from most state laws, including those governing bilingual education.

River Glen parents plan to approach the San Jose school board tonight with a request to join five other California schools with similar programs in the petition for alternative status.

The district staff has recommended the board approve the waiver request. The move is designed to give the school assurance it can continue its program despite conflicts with a new state law. Proposition 227, approved by voters in June, prohibits most districts from teaching non-English-speaking students in a language other than English.

The waiver request comes just days after a federal court judge granted San Jose Unified temporary permission to continue offering its bilingual and dual immersion programs to Spanish-speaking students. Unlike other districts throughout the state, San Jose is under federal court order to offer Spanish-speaking students instruction in their native language. That order, the judge said, supersedes state law.

Even though the district’s lawyer is confident the district will prevail when the judge re-examines the matter in November, River Glen parents said they wish added assurance.

“We’re trying to do everything possible to preserve the program for the long term,” said River Glen parent Marilyn Dion.

The education code allows districts to create as many alternative campuses as they choose. Attendance at the school must be voluntary, and no teacher can be forced to work at the campus.

Even though alternative schools are not subject to state law, except as it relates to earthquake safety, little is expected to change at River Glen if the request is approved. Waivers are granted at the discretion of the state schools chief.

The fate of the 60 dual immersion programs in California was an issue throughout the Proposition 227 campaign. The initiative’s author, Ron Unz, maintained that such programs, in which English-speaking students learn Spanish and Spanish-speaking students learn English, could continue under the measure with minor alterations.

Unz said he does not believe schools should be allowed to seek alternative status that allows them to ignore provisions of Proposition 227; instead they should follow the waiver process outlined in the law.

“It’s nothing against a dual immersion programs,” added Sherri Annis, spokeswoman for the English for the Children Initiative. “It has to do with not circumventing intent of the law and with wishes of the people of California.”

The goal of dual language immersion programs like River Glen’s is to teach students to become fluent in English and Spanish. Studies have shown that students enrolled in such programs score just as well, if not better, on English and mathematics tests as those in standard school programs.

Elements of the program, however, conflict with provisions of Proposition 227. In River Glen’s program both English- and non-English- speaking students are taught primarily in Spanish during the first few years, which goes against the initiative’s requirements.

In order to comply with the new law, River Glen would have to alter its curriculum so that Spanish-speaking students would be taught in English only during the first month of school. Such a change would be disruptive and conflicts with the program’s goal, Dion said.

“The program is designed to start out by immersing children in Spanish,” she said. “To teach Spanish- speaking children for 30 days in English and shift back to original design of 90 percent of their day in Spanish is too disruptive.”

In seeking a waiver, River Glen joins five other schools — mostly in Southern California. Doug Stone, spokesman for the California Department of Education, said that Eastin is slated to meet with parents in two Orange County districts next week to discuss their applications.

Districts in Palo Alto, Mountain View, Redwood City and San Mateo also offer dual language immersion programs, but so far River Glen is the only such program in the area to seek alternative status.

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