Parents Ask for Waivers To Put Students Back in Bilingual Ed.

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Parents of thousands of California students are asking that their children be returned to bilingual education, invoking a waiver option in the new state law that aims to get rid of most such programs.

Roughly one-third of the state's 1.4 million limited-English-proficient students were enrolled in bilingual education before Golden State voters approved Proposition 227 in June. That measure was designed to end most bilingual education programs in the public schools, but it also included a way for parents to petition to send their children back into such classes. After a 30-day waiting period, parents are starting to exercise that option, in varying degrees, across the state.

In the Los Angeles district, for example, early figures show that waiver requests equal 11 percent of the number of students who were previously in bilingual education; in the Oxnard system, that figure is 80 percent.

Proposition 227 took effect for school terms that began after Aug. 2 and requires schools, in most cases, to teach LEP students in English. And while observers caution that it is far too early to gauge the full effects of the law, it is clear that, for now, bilingual education has not ended in California.

Because of the measure's broad language and the way state and local officials have interpreted it, schools are in varying stages of carrying out the new law. Many districts are revamping programs and shifting students within programs--a state of flux that experts say is likely to continue for the foreseeable future.

The law calls for students to be placed in "sheltered" or "structured" English-immersion classes where "nearly all" instruction is in English. The state has granted districts considerable leeway in crafting their programs and defining what "nearly all" means.

In most cases, the law calls for students to spend no more than a year in such programs before moving into regular classes.

The law also calls for students, in certain circumstances, to spend at least 30 days in the English-immersion classes before schools can grant parent requests for their children to be moved back into bilingual programs. That wait is now up in many schools, and parents are starting to act.

Influencing Choice

Supporters of bilingual education say such classes, which teach students at least part of the day in their native languages, allow students to keep pace academically while gradually learning English. Critics say too often students are left without adequate English skills.

Almost half the students in the 697,000-student Los Angeles district are considered LEP. Last school year, before Proposition 227 passed, about 107,000 of the 310,000 LEP students in the system were in bilingual education.

So far, the parents of nearly 12,000 students have requested waivers to return to bilingual programs, according to the district. That figure represents roughly 11 percent of the number of students in bilingual education last year.

In Los Angeles, about 168,000 of the district's 312,500 LEP students remain enrolled in one of two English-immersion programs, district officials said. But they emphasized that the figures were preliminary; for example, as of late last month, an estimated 40 percent of LEP students in elementary schools had yet to reach the 30-day mark. And, they noted, after the initial 30-day waiting period, parents may request a waiver from English immersion at any point in the school term.

"It's really difficult to make predictions about what this will look like come the end of the year," said Forrest Ross, a district administrator who oversees the implementation of Proposition 227.

Just how many parents are opting to put their children back into bilingual education is unclear because no one is yet tracking the waivers statewide.

District and state officials expect more shifts between programs as the year goes on. Parents likely will keep a close eye on test scores and report cards if their children have switched from one program to another.

Several factors, officials say, can influence how many parents opt for bilingual education in a district: How popular were the bilingual programs before Proposition 227? What does the district offer as its English-immersion options, and do parents perceive them as positive or punitive? How does the district inform parents about the options?

Limiting Advocacy

Many districts say educators are allowed to advise parents on what program may be best for their children--if asked.

"The bottom line is, you don't advocate," Mr. Ross said.

In the 54,000-student Santa Ana district, 71 percent of students are LEP. Last year, roughly 11,000 students were enrolled in bilingual programs; to date, parents have sought some 4,300 waivers, almost 40 percent of last year's enrollment, said Howard M. Bryan, the district's director of English-language development and bilingual education. One of the co-sponsors of Proposition 227, Gloria Matta Tuchman, is a teacher in Santa Ana. Ms. Tuchman ran for--and last week lost--the post of state schools chief.

The district gave schools a script to use in explaining program options to parents. But the response has been anything but standard, Mr. Bryan said: Some schools have had almost all parents request waivers, others just a few.

"Our school board wanted to make sure we were being up front and fair with our parents. And that's what we're looking at now," Mr. Bryan said.

In the 15,000-student K-8 Oxnard district, 5,800 of 7,400 LEP students were in bilingual programs last year. So far, 4,650 students--or 80 percent of last year's bilingual education enrollment--have returned to bilingual classes with parent-requested waivers.

Looking Ahead

According to backers of Proposition 227, the Oxnard district tried to sway parents away from English immersion by telling them that kindergartners in the immersion program would not be taught reading and writing readiness but that those in the bilingual program would be. Kindergartners in the district's bilingual program first learn to read and write in Spanish.

"When a parent is presented with the option to have their children learn to read and write versus not, any parent would be crazy not to choose the first," said Sheri Annis, a spokeswoman for the English for the Children campaign, which sponsored the ballot measure. "They're lying to parents," she maintained.

But Richard Duarte, Oxnard's interim superintendent, said the district has simply informed parents that students with little or no English fluency must first develop oral English skills before being taught to read and write in English. "We feel that follows sound education pedagogy," he said. "This is not parent intimidation; this is informed consent."

Proposition 227 backers have criticized the state school board for giving what they say is too much flexibility to districts in defining English-immersion programs and approving parent waivers.

For example, one type of parent waiver is for children with special physical, emotional, psychological, or educational needs. The law says local school officials who believe an alternative to English immersion would be best for the student's "overall education development" may grant a waiver--but parents are not guaranteed one. But the state school board's regulations say such waivers "shall be granted" unless educators determine that immersion is best for the student's development.

And Proposition 227 organizers have blasted districts for offering what they call backdoor bilingual programs by defining the law's call for "nearly all" teaching to be in English to mean up to 40 percent of instruction can be in other languages.

Meanwhile, dozens of districts that have petitioned the state board for waivers of parts of Proposition 227 are awaiting a court decision on whether the board must hear their requests. ("Some Calif. Schools Finding Ways Around Prop. 227," Sept. 30, 1998.)

And changes in the governor's office as a result of last week's elections could influence the way the new law continues to play out.

Vol. 18, Issue 11, Pages 1, 12

Published in Print: November 11, 1998, as Parents Ask for Waivers To Put Students Back in Bilingual Ed.
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