When schools in Sonoma County open later this month, most students with limited English-speaking skills will be taught primarily in that language as administrators seek to carry out the requirements of Proposition 227.
But few school officials can predict what will happen next. Much depends on how many parents request waivers to have their children moved from English instruction into bilingual programs.
“I think we’re going to listen very, very closely to the parents,” said Gary Moe, student services director for the Sonoma Valley School District.
In June, voters passed Proposition 227, which software magnate Ron Unz championed as a way to end bilingual programs in California. The new law requires that most students for whom English is a second language be taught in English. It also proposes that those students be placed in their own classes and receive a year’s worth of intense English language instruction before being moved to regular classrooms.
The initiative allows parents to obtain waivers to place their children in bilingual programs, and requires a school to provide such a program if enough parents seek waivers. The threshold is 20 students in the same grade at a school. Virtually all the bilingual programs in California are given in Spanish and English.
Around Sonoma County, administrators have come up with four basic options for carrying out the new law: An intensive English-language development course for beginners; instruction in English within regular classes; separate classes for second-language students with instruction given roughly 60 percent in English and 40 percent in Spanish; and a separate program to make students fluent in both English and Spanish.
This summer, school administrators statewide have been preparing how they will respond to the initiative when school begins. Most seem to be making plans to abide by the law, said Sherri Annis, spokeswoman for Unz’s group English for the Children. Some, however, are ignoring the initiative and others are seeking to continue their own programs.
“We’re really seeing all extremes,” Annis said.
About 8,000 of Sonoma County’s 70,000 public school students were classified as “limited English proficient” in 1997, the most recent data available. About 2,000 of those received instruction in Spanish — true bilingual education.
School officials in the county say their goals remain the same as before the initiative passed: to help students learn English quickly and to help them keep from falling behind academically.
Both Healdsburg and Windsor have dual immersion bilingual program, in which students learn to become fluent in both English and Spanish. Both districts sought waivers from Proposition 227 in order to preserve the immersion programs. However, the state Board of Education rejected their requests.
Now Windsor is seeking to turn its dual immersion school, Cali Calmecac, into a charter school, which would exempt it from the requirements of the initiative. However, that also takes a waiver from the state board, which will hear the matter next month.
Healdsburg administrators are recommending the school board seek a waiver for its 8-year-old dual immersion program from state schools superintendent Delaine Eastin. The request for such waivers, which was condemned by Unz, have been made by a few other districts around the state. The school board will consider the waiver proposal Tuesday when it reviews the proposed plan for abiding by Proposition 227.
When school starts, Windsor officials intend to keep running their bilingual program as usual at Cali Calmecac. Students will learn in both Spanish and English, even though the initiative requires all second-language students to spend their first 30 days in a classroom where the instruction is “overwhelmingly” in English.
Superintendent Rick Brewer defended the plan by saying the school’s Spanish-speaking parents will sign waivers for their children to receive the bilingual instruction. Also, he maintained that Unz himself told the school’s parents and administrators earlier this year to keep their program alive if that is what they want.
“We’re following through with Mr. Unz’s recommendation,” Brewer said.
Annis said the Windsor plan would “blatantly” violate the law because school officials can’t grant waivers until the students complete 30 days of instruction in English.
“Mr. Unz’s recommendation was not to defy the law or the procedures written into the law,” Annis said.
Other administrators interviewed are taking a more cautious approach, possibly because the initiative includes a provision to hold school officials personally liable if they are found to “willfully and repeatedly” refuse to implement the law.
Those officials plan to place all second-language students in English instruction for the first 30 days. After that, the number of parental waivers will determine the type of instruction students receive. Many districts have yet to announce whether they will offer bilingual classes for less than 20 students, though administrators have indicated the expense might be too great.