SACRAMENTO—The Orange Unified School District on Thursday became the largest school system in California to win permission to drop traditional bilingual education since state officials eased limits on English-only teaching two years ago.
As a result, dozens of elementary classrooms will be transformed within months as instruction in Spanish for about 1,500 students gives way to a curriculum dominated by English.
Bilingual education advocates fear the overhaul will spell trouble for students unready for academic-level English; opposing partisans say it’s best to steep students in the primary language of the United States without delay.
The bilingual debate in Orange is far from settled. The district won only a temporary approval, good for just one year, after the State Board of Education voted 5 to 2 in favor of the plan, with some modifications. That fell short of the six votes needed for full approval, but under state law the waiver was immediately granted for just one year, setting the stage for the battle to resume next year.
The district must also answer federal regulators who this week raised concerns about potential discrimination against some students who aren’t fluent in English.
But even a partial victory for the anti-bilingual forces in Orange marked a crucial point in the statewide debate over a besieged program that even backers say is in need of reform.
“I think the board has clearly said it wants flexibility for school districts,” said state board member Marion McDowell, who supported the Orange plan. “We don’t believe there’s one right way.”
Thursday’s development came as state lawmakers were considering the latest in a series of efforts in recent years to reform a system that is desperately short of qualified teachers and under fire for failing to move students rapidly to English fluency.
English-only advocates are also gathering signatures for a proposed 1998 statewide initiative to dismantle bilingual education.
Orange’s plan has outraged some Latino activists who say the district ignored hundreds of parents who fought to preserve the bilingual program.
“They haven’t paid any attention to us at all,” said Carmen Hernandez, a Spanish-speaking immigrant from Mexico, whose son Marco is in a bilingual first-grade class at Fairhaven Elementary. “All they do is talk. They never listen.”
Hernandez said she fears an English-only classroom will be a formidable hurdle for many Spanish-speaking youngsters. She also said that learning English shouldn’t be the only goal.
“It’s very important to us to preserve our roots,” Hernandez said. “I want my child to learn English but not forget his Spanish.”
Education experts are sharply divided over which method works best. Some favor “English immersion,” while others warn that students can fall behind if they’re taught in a language they don’t completely understand.
State rules favor native-language instruction for most of the roughly 1.3 million California students who aren’t fluent in English, especially those in elementary schools. But a policy adopted by the State Board of Education in 1995 opened the door for school districts to seek broad waivers to those rules.
Orange now becomes the fourth district to receive such a waiver. Its schools serve about 29,000 students in Orange, Villa Park and portions of Anaheim, Santa Ana and Garden Grove. Three smaller school districts, in Westminster and Anaheim, also have won waivers in the past two years. Previously, some other districts around the state had also experimented with alternatives.
However, Orange is bound to draw closer scrutiny than most other districts that have bucked the bilingual system. The district in recent years has gained a reputation for challenging federal and state government mandates.
“Orange Unified is again leading the way, bringing to the surface issues that need to be discussed in the educational arena,” said conservative veteran Trustee Maureen Aschoff.
Orange’s plan, which one trustee said would cost about $ 125,000 in the next year, calls for teachers from kindergarten through third grade to use English almost exclusively in the classroom, with some help from bilingual teaching aides. In addition, the district plans to start special tutoring sessions outside normal school hours to bolster students’ English skills.
The state board’s default approval went against the advice of state education staff members, who protested that the Orange Unified plan failed to include specific, credible standards to measure student progress. The California Assn. for Bilingual Education also opposed the plan, saying it threatened to roll back decades of hard-won progress for minority students.
District officials, who maintain they are following proven educational theories, welcomed the chance to give their program a yearlong test run.
“I think when we’ll take the waiver application back next year, we’ll be in a stronger position to get it approved,” said Martin Jacobson, president of the Orange school board.
A State Board of Education officer, Bill Lucia, said the waiver is effective Aug. 1.
Jacobson said the district intended to start its program as soon as possible, aiming for full implementation by September.
Besides a fast-running clock, the district must also contend with federal regulators.
This week, the Office for Civil Rights of the U.S. Department of Education sent the district a letter raising what it called “serious concerns” for the rights of special-education students who speak little English. In 1994, the district had agreed to take measures to help such students after the federal office found evidence of discrimination.
Now that the Orange plan is set to move forward, the rights office must decide which steps to take. “We’ve not had an opportunity to fully explore the impact of the action,” said Rodger Murphey, a federal education spokesman.
Murphey said the district has 500 to 700 special-education students who speak limited English, but it was not immediately clear how many of those would be affected by the Orange plan.
Jacobson and other district officials have dismissed the federal regulators’ concerns, saying that the district will be improving educational opportunities for its students.
Another unknown is how the teaching corps will react. Some of Orange’s most experienced bilingual teachers have left the district this year, in part because of the bilingual debate. New teachers taking their place will face the challenge of reaching across cultural and linguistic divides, almost entirely in English.
Suzanne Vaugine, president of the Orange Unified Education Assn., the teachers union, said many teachers have not been told exactly how the plan will change the operations of their classrooms, and what role the new bilingual aides will play. She also cautioned against expecting overnight educational miracles.
“I don’t know if you can possibly find out if a program is working after only one year,” Vaugine said. “I’m concerned about giving something a chance to work. I don’t have a clue as to what they could show in a year.”