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Calif. Board Reinstates $4.9 Million for Bilingual Ed.

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After Oakland, Calif., school officials put forth a plan to improve their much-criticized programs for limited-English-proficient students, the California state board of education has voted to reinstate bilingual-education funds for the district.

The board's action this month will give Oakland access to an estimated $4.9 million withheld last summer because the school system was out of compliance with numerous state and federal bilingual-education regulations a year after a state audit.

Several probes had found that many of the district's 14,000 L.E.P. students were being placed in classes inappropriate to their language levels and did not have sufficient materials, access to needed courses, or the services of certified bilingual teachers, according to Norman C. Gold, the state director of bilingual-education compliance.

In light of the board's decision, the U.S. Education Department's office for civil rights has backed off its threat to cut off all the district's federal funds. The office last fall faulted the district for a "well-documented, 17-year record of failure to fulfill its obligation to language-minority students.'' (See Education Week, Nov. 24, 1993.)

But if the district does not follow through with its compliance plan, which is effective immediately, the agency could take action, cautioned John E. Palomino, the director of the O.C.R.'s regional office in San Francisco.

The board had been under pressure from three Bay Area state lawmakers--Assemblyman Tom Bates, Assemblywoman Barbara Lee, and Sen. Nicholas C. Petris--to reinstate Oakland's funds at its February meeting. The board rejected the plea at that time, citing issues that still needed to be worked out.

The board approved funding at its March meeting, even though the state education department indicated that some issues still remained to be resolved.

Strict Guidelines Set

The district worked for months with the state education department and the O.C.R. to develop its five-part, five-year plan, which details who will implement each program element and when.

"I think we do finally have some very clear and direct--although strict--guidelines,'' said Superintendent Richard P. Mesa.

But the district still needs to refine how it classifies L.E.P. students, which will affect how many more certified bilingual teachers it will have to hire. It also must work on how it decides which students will receive instruction in their native languages, Mr. Gold said.

"The way it is now, it's an all-or-nothing thing,'' he said. "We're urging them to refine it so that kids don't just fall off a cliff'' into classes taught only in English.

Both the state and the O.C.R. will monitor implementation of the plan and will help train district administrators on the legal rights of L.E.P. students. The district also plans to hire a private consultant to do additional staff training, Mr. Gold said.

As part of the plan, the district will assign monitors at each school site, with oversight from the central office.

The district plans to hold public hearings on the plan, and will send letters in the district's four most common languages to the parents of students in the bilingual program, Mr. Mesa said. Oakland has been repeatedly criticized for not including parents of bilingual students in decisionmaking.

The new plan will replace a consent decree signed by district officials in 1985 in response to a class action, Zambrano v. Oakland Unified School District, filed by nine families of L.E.P. students. Auditors have found persistent violations of the settlement.

The lawyer for the Zambrano plaintiffs said that if they and the district do not reach agreement on some unresolved issues, the district could be called into court for violating the settlement's terms.

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