State faults Inland district on bilingual plan

Educators say they will help Fontana schools to craft a better post-Prop. 227 agenda.

FONTANA—The Fontana school district is the first in the state to get a full-blown review that says it is failing to live up to a voter-mandated measure requiring that students be taught in English.

School districts throughout the Inland area and the state are expecting assessments on how well they are executing Prop. 227 from the state Department of Education.

Failure to comply with the measure and related laws can mean districts lose state or federal funding.

State education officials say they hope to help Fontana polish a plan that can be used to clue in other districts struggling to comply with the new law.

Fontana administrators say they welcome the scrutiny and want to work with the Education Department. A state team visited the district last month, and Fontana received its report this week.

“They got the ball rolling,” said Norman Gold, manager of the education department’s language proficiency and academic accountability unit. “There’s no question that as we work through this with Fontana, it will not only be helpful for them but also for other districts.”

Districts statewide began eliminating bilingual classes last August after state voters passed Prop. 227 in June. Since then, many children have been shifted into classrooms where lessons are taught “overwhelmingly” in English. Children in some districts have remained in bilingual classes because parents are allowed to sign waivers if their children already know English, are at least 10 years old or have “special needs.”

The Fontana Unified School District is one of 30 districts in the state under a court-ordered intensive review process because of past problems complying with bilingual education programs. The Riverside school district also is under the same scrutiny and is expecting state visitors in March.

The state noted several violations of Prop. 227 in Fontana’s program, including concerns that a significant number of students at the early stages of learning English were enrolled in mainstream classes without approval from their parents. The state also said the district had not clearly spelled out a policy for monitoring students’ progress as they learn English.

Gold said other areas of concern had to do with existing state and federal laws. For instance, the review states the district violated federal laws because nonfluent students were falling behind in academic subjects after the district failed to offer appropriate help.

Fontana Superintendent Karen Harshman said she requested the review instead of waiting for the Department of Education to come to Fontana. Harshman said the district has a lot of work to do.

“This has certainly provided us with the opportunity to move forward and we’re ready for it,” Harshman said.

The state based its review on a draft of the State Program for English Learners finished last September.

Harshman said she was pleased the review hit on a few strengths. For instance, it found that the district did a good job of training teachers to use games and skits to help children learn English faster.

Harshman named Chuck Hunter as a principal on special assignment to work with state officials and come up with a plan that will address problems. Hunter hopes to have an improved plan by June.

The review named several Fontana schools, including Sequoia Middle School, where too many students were in mainstream classes and were posting poor grades.

Sequoia Principal Maria Palacio said one-third of her students are not fluent in English but just one teacher is qualified to help them.

“The thing is that when we have over 400 of our students that have that problem and one teacher, what are we going to do?” Palacio said. “It’s difficult for us to do what the law says we have to do.”

Palacio said she is trying to make sure more teachers have at least basic skills to help children learning a second language. She said two-thirds of Sequoia’s teachers spent 45 hours in training since summer in learning how to use more visuals in the classroom.

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