Zenaeda Herrera had already decided that her three children were going to be bilingual _ long before Proposition 227.
So there was little Martin Elementary school officials could say in their 40-minute, scripted presentation this week that could sway Herrera. She wants bilingual education.
Herrera asked for a waiver to exempt her youngest son, Tomas, from English-immersion classes, as mandated under Prop. 227. Under the law, parents can ask for waivers if their children meet certain criteria.
More than 2,000 Santa Ana parents already have asked for waivers. Administrators expect more after all cycles of the year-round schools complete their first 30 days of English immersion in early November.
Topaz Elementary in Placentia-Yorba Linda Unified also received a large waiver turnout, with 262 parental requests. But in Orange County’s other 25 districts _ even in areas with large pockets of limited-English students _ few requests are trickling in.
Under the state board regulations, schools can act upon waiver requests only after students have spent 30 days in English immersion. If parents of 20 or more students at one grade level ask for an alternative teaching method, such as bilingual education, schools must provide a class. Those with fewer numbers of requests can transfer students to a school where an alternative program is available.
Administrators notified parents of their options by mail, in meetings and in parent conferences. Critics say some schools have pushed waivers as a way to revert back to bilingual education. Yet parents say they are exercising their choice.
“It’s a grave decision,” Herrera said. “And it’s a family one.”
But 227 proponents such as Santa Ana school board member Rosemarie Avila contend that waivers require specific criteria: A child must show special, physical, emotional, psychological or educational needs before being granted a waiver.
“Schools are misleading parents into thinking they have a choice,” Avila said. “Waivers don’t give parents a choice.”
Rosa Lopez, another parent at Martin, has decided for her kindergarten son Javier to continue in English immersion.
“He has brothers and sisters who can help him with English and with homework,” Lopez said. “He’s going to be bilingual because he learns English in the classroom and Spanish at home.”
Five of Lopez’s seven children went through bilingual programs. She says it worked for them, but she doesn’t mind that Javier will learn mostly in English. For her, it’s a choice of two means to the same end.
Bilingual education or English-immersion, Lopez has no doubt her son will be fluent in two languages. She and other parents say they are more concerned with the teachers than the methods.
“What’s most important is that they have a good teacher,” said Lopez, who said she’d reconsider keeping Javier in immersion if he has to switch to a new teacher.
Parents say the decision is a complicated one. Some are confused by the plethora of program options.
Reasons for seeking waivers range from wanting their children to maintain their Spanish and wanting to keep the same teacher to wanting to be able to help their kids with homework. Many parents expressed frustration with English immersion, saying their children have come home saying they don’t understand their teachers.
“I don’t know if my child is ready for all English,” said Adriana Salado, whose first-grader, Natalia, was formerly in a bilingual class. “I prefer to talk with my child’s teacher before I sign anything.”
Prop. 227 advocates say teachers and principals are tipping the scales in favor of bilingual education in their recommendations.
“Parents are being manipulated in that they’re being told which programs to choose,” Avila said. “These parents are not used to making educational decisions for their children. They say, ‘Let the professionals do it.’ “
Some administrators say it’s not about advocating choice.
At Heninger school in Santa Ana, Principal Kathy Sabine said more students have been sent to the principal’s office for picking fights or misbehaving in class since students began English immersion.
“Children are enduring a lot of stress,” Sabine said. “They are not comfortable being in a class where they don’t completely understand what they’re being told. They take it out with aggressive behavior on the playground.”
Sabine says her school has had about 40 discipline referrals in 30 days, compared to 20 all last year. The school, where 98 percent are limited English, has received 96 waiver requests so far.
According to a language census completed last spring, Santa Ana’s limited-English population was about 37,000 students. More than half of those students _ about 20,000 _ were in bilingual programs. About 17,000 Santa Ana students were already in English immersion. So even if all the waiver requests are granted, about 18,000 more students will be in English immersion this year than last.
At Pomona Elementary in Costa Mesa and San Juan Elementary in San Juan Capistrano, where about 90 percent of the students speak limited English, almost all parents have returned consent forms agreeing to the schools’ English immersion program. Most immersion programs allow teachers to use Spanish occasionally to explain concepts or words the children have trouble understanding.
“We haven’t had one waiver request,” said Pomona Principal Cathi Pierson. “The bottom line is parents want their kids to learn English.”
Waiver requests have posed a logistical puzzle for some schools _ especially those on year-round schedules, where students have already completed one-fourth of their school year. Students may be reassigned to different teachers to accommodate the influx of language program preferences.
“The majority of parents told us they were more interested in keeping the same teacher than in whether their children were taught in English or Spanish,” said Doris Staack, principal of Topaz Elementary in the Placentia-Yorba Linda school district.
Staack is concerned the school won’t have enough teachers to accommodate parents’ choice for bilingual, immersion and mainstream classes.
“It’s unfortunate if they have to change teachers, but that’s a side effect of 227.”
Parents’ decisions aren’t always cut and dried.
Herrera, who is adamant about her younger son returning to a bilingual class, says she knows it’s not for everyone. Her third-grade son, Hector, is improving under English-immersion and will continue learning mostly in English.
The mother of three has seen bilingual programs in other schools where her kids were taught exclusively in Spanish. She wants equal time for both English and Spanish at Martin Elementary.
“I’m getting the best for my kids,” said Herrera, who works nights in a plate factory. “My kids are going to get better jobs with two languages. In this country of immigrants, we value a person who speaks many languages. And I want them to be able to read and write in both.”
Register staff writers John Gittelsohn and Dennis Love contributed to this report.
WHAT HAPPENS WHEN PARENTS REQUEST WAIVER
Proposition 227, passed by voters in June, requires that instruction in California schools be overwhelmingly in English. Under the law, parents may seek waivers to place their children in alternative classes.
Parents can ask for a waiver at any time, but schools can acknowledge the requests only after a child has been in English immersion for at least 30 days.
Parents seeking waivers must go to the school and be informed of the different options available to them. If an individual school has 20 or more waivers granted in one grade, the school must provide a class. If fewer than 20 receive waivers, students have the option of transferring.
The school has 10 days to respond to parents’ waiver requests after the 30 days of immersion or 20 instructional days after a parent submits a waiver request, whichever is later.
Students eligible for waivers must show special, physical, psychological, emotional or educational needs, be at least 10 years old or be fluent in English.
WHAT ONE DISTRICT TELLS ITS PARENTS
Here are the main points Santa Ana principals talk about in the presentations they give to parents about Proposition 227:
Students learning English will be taught in English under the new law. Those with limited language skills will be taught in structured English.
Parents have the option to waive English immersion if their children already know English, are 10 or older, or have special needs _ physical, emotional, psychological or educational.
Available options are English language class, mainstream class, structured English, bilingual/native language instruction, Spanish language maintenance and dual-language immersion.
Teachers will review results from tests and student data to assess student performance and placement.
Materials will be purchased to support English immersion.