Schools weigh bilingual education options

Santa Ana considers creating alternative schools to bypass the Prop. 227 waiver system

At least 12 Santa Ana schools might try to become language-alternative schools, which would exempt them from Proposition 227 and allow them to resume some form of bilingual education.

“We had schools where about three-quarters of the parents opted for waivers,” said John Palacio, Santa Ana school board president.

“This is significant enough to have a discussion on how to better respond to the community’s needs. We have to provide choices that meet the diversity in our district. ”

But proponents of Prop. 227 say any such action would defy the will of the voters.

“In light of all the good reviews English-immersion has received, it seems like a real step backwards,” said Rosemarie Avila, a Santa Ana board member. “An alternative program is a way to pull bilingual education out from under the ed code. They’re just trying to find another way to get around things. ”

The school board will discuss tonight trying to create alternative schools.

Santa Ana’s preliminary discussion about alternative schools echoes what other school districts with high limited-English populations have been discussing. Anaheim City School District began considering the idea of creating a two-way immersion program in early March.

The discussion also brings to mind events at Las Palmas Elementary in San Clemente and Gates Elementary in Lake Forest just after Prop. 227’s passage.

Parents at those two schools feared that their choice programs would crumble after the law passed. They guarded their dual-immersion programs from Prop. 227 by obtaining alternative- and charter-school status. In dual immersion, English- and Spanish-speaking children learn together until both groups are biliterate and bilingual, by the sixth grade.

“We’ve been looking _ with great interest _ at how the two schools in south county got approval for an alternative program,” said Howard Bryan, director of bilingual education for Santa Ana Unified. “If they can do it, there might be hope for us. ” Since Prop. 227 passed in June, Santa Ana has received some 4,700 waiver requests from parents who wanted their children to continue in bilingual education _ by far the largest number of any district in the county. Pio Pico, Lincoln and Washington elementaries are among 12 Santa Ana schools where 50 percent of the parents of kindergarteners and first-graders of each school requested waivers.

With Prop. 227, parents can opt for a waiver from the law’s English mandate if their children meet certain criteria. Prop. 227 requires a child to complete 30 days in an English-immersion class before parents request a waiver, but an alternative program could allow parents to bypass the annual process of requesting waivers.

Palacio said bilingual alternative schools, if approved by state schools Superintendent Delaine Eastin, would resemble the district’s choice schools, or fundamental schools, in that parents, teachers and administrators would have a heavy influence on school curricula and policies.

Avila says schools thinking of applying for alternative bilingual programs must first prove a strong track record. She says guidelines should be made to revoke alternative status for schools that don’t meet their goals after a set number of years.

Santa Ana’s preliminary talks could be for naught if the 12 candidate schools don’t meet certain state criteria for alternative programs.

Schools applying for an alternative program must show:

Evidence of high academic standards.

Overwhelming support for the program by parents and teachers, with all students and teachers entering the program on a voluntary basis.

Effectiveness in student achievement and growth in English.

Norm Gold, manager of language proficiency and accountability for the California Department of Education, says bilingual schools can use test scores and redesignation rates _ how many students become fluent in English _ to prove a history of high performance.

“We want districts to show how successful they’ve been and be able to back their claims,” Gold said. “They must show growth in English. ”

But what is a successful program?

“Success is a relative term,” Gold said. “There are English-only schools in Orange County that have less than three-quarters of their students who are proficient in oral English that claim they are a success. ”

Sometimes politics takes precedence, too.

In south county, parents and staff of dual-immersion programs tried hard to set themselves apart from their bilingual counterparts.

In Capistrano Unified, school officials and parents sacrificed defending the district’s bilingual programs for the sake of ensuring that Las Palmas could preserve its two-way program.

Only seven programs statewide have received alternative status based on their language programs, and all of them are dual-immersion programs. Ten other requests for language-alternative schools _ including a couple that feature transitional bilingual programs _ are pending.

“The (alternative schools) law has been around for more than 20 years. There wasn’t any particular reason for schools to develop an alternative-language school until now,” said Lynn Hartzler, an alternative-schools consultant for the California Department of Education. “They are now seen as a legislative opportunity that has become important for those who want to preserve bilingual education. ”

Schools considering an alternative program understand they will be under scrutiny. Prop. 227 proponents recently asked the state Department of Education to give them information about all requests for waivers from the English-only requirement.

“We have to make sure we are upholding the will of people,” said Avila. “The voters decided in June what they wanted. I can’t believe this debate is still going on. ”

But educators assert that they are within the laws both for alternative schools and Prop. 227.

“We’re not at all worried that this goes against the intent of Prop. 227,” said Sandy Barry, assistant superintendent of education for Anaheim City School District. Anaheim has also bounced around ideas to create a two-way immersion program. “Prop. 227 allows for alternatives. “

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