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Under State Attack, Oakland Revamping Bilingual-Ed. Program

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After experiencing a partial freezing of state bilingual-education aid, the Oakland, Calif., school district is planning by Nov. 1 to present a plan for improving its frequently criticized programs for limited-English-proficient students.

In an action that was not made public until last week, the California education department in July froze part of Oakland's bilingual funding, citing continuing shortcomings in the 52,000-student district's services for its 14,000 L.E.P. students.

A portion of the district's bilingual funding--estimated at $4.9 million--was withheld because the school system was still out of compliance with numerous state and federal regulations on bilingual education a year after a state audit, according to Norman C. Gold, the state director of bilingual-education compliance.

"This is the one lever we can pull,'' Mr. Gold said. "You've got teachers who don't want to go for training and a superintendent who may not be willing to take certain steps. There's some lack of will on all levels.''

To retrieve the frozen funds, part of a supplemental program used to pay for things such as teacher training and for paraprofessionals, the district's plan must insure that students are placed in classes appropriate to their language levels and have sufficient materials, access to courses they need to graduate, and the services of certified bilingual teachers, Mr. Gold said.

The plan must include "clear milestones to check'' that the district is complying within a "reasonable'' time period, he added.

'Scarce Resources'

In a regular triennial compliance review of the Oakland district last year, state officials found that many L.E.P. students were in mainstream classes without having been deemed fluent in English, while students in need of instruction in their native languages were not receiving it. The review also indicated that many teachers of L.E.P. students were not fully qualified, and that many parents had not received written notice of their children's language-assessment test results.

In addition, some bilingual advisory committees, which the state requires be set up at each school serving L.E.P. students to allow input by parents, teachers, and staff members, were left out of bilingual-education decisions, the review found.

The state had found similar violations in a separate 1992 probe prompted by complaints filed the year before by six parents and teachers.

The state has received more complaints about the bilingual-education program in Oakland than in any other district, Mr. Gold noted.

But the district's superintendent, Richard P. Mesa, contended that most violations had centered around students who speak less common languages, rather than the languages found more often in the district, such as Spanish, Cantonese, Vietnamese, and Cambodian. The state maintained that deficiencies were spread among most language groups.

The district's classrooms are staffed by fully credentialed bilingual teachers or bilingual teachers in training, Mr. Mesa said, noting that the system has 166 bilingual teachers, 92 language-development specialists, and 370 teachers in training in both categories.

"The issue at Oakland is competition for scarce resources among minorities,'' he observed. "That's the fundamental problem.''

Deede C. Davis, the district's director of bilingual education, acknowledged that not all L.E.P. students are receiving services to which they are entitled. "But we're working to insure they do,'' she said.

A History of Violations

Critics of Oakland's bilingual efforts said they supported the state's withholding of funds as a last-ditch effort to bring the district into more than "paper compliance.''

Complaints about the district go back as far as 1984, when nine families brought a class action accusing it of failing to provide adequate bilingual education. That led to a 1991 settlement, with which the district must show next month in court that it is in compliance.

In addition, the U.S. Education Department's office for civil rights has issued eight complaint reports about the district's education of L.E.P. students since 1986, the most recent of which was filed last month.

Parents of L.E.P. students, who have staged walkouts and strikes over the issue, said the state should continue to put pressure on the district.

"We don't want them to unfreeze that money until we get a real bilingual program,'' Lucy Espinosa, a parent of three children in the district's bilingual program, said in Spanish. "We're tired of papers; they don't do anything in reality, in the classroom where our children need it.''

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