Daily Pilot

Saturday, March 14, 1998

Leece Pushes for Shift to English-only
Trustee's statement follows state Board of Education decision abolishing mandatory bilingual program.

NEWPORT-MESA -- Now that the state Board of Education has done away with mandatory bilingual education programs in public schools, one Newport-Mesa school official said she plans to propose an English-only policy for the district.
   Other Newport-Mesa officials gave mixed reactions to the state board's decision Thursday giving school districts the power to waive the bilingual education mandate without petitioning the state.
   "Thousands of kids held hostage in bilingual programs now have the opportunity to be set free," said Newport-Mesa school board member Wendy Leece, who believes the district should adopt an English-only policy. "Now it is our moral duty to put this on the front burner -- this is more important than finding a superintendent or deferred maintenance issues." Board member Serena Stokes said she, too, is pleased with the state's decision.
   "I'm glad to see it's going back to local control," she said. "That's the way it should have been." Stokes, who used to be a principal at a Santa Ana school with a large limited-English student population, said there should also be a moratorium on the length of time a student is allowed to stay in a bilingual program.
   "Parents and students should be placed on notice that the program has a limit, and they need to learn English," she said. "They should only be allowed to stay in a program for a year or a year and a half." If students don't have a firm grasp of the English language by the third grade, Stokes said it's very difficult to bring them up to speed for the rest of their time in elementary school.
   Students who have been in the district since first grade should have completed the transition from bilingual into English-only classrooms by the middle of the second grade, Stokes said.
   Leece hailed the board's decision as the work of God.
   "It's like the parting of the Red Sea and the walls of Jericho coming down on the same day," she said. "Prayer works." Leece went so far as to say the district should encourage all school employees to use only English on school grounds.
   "It's not going to be an overnight thing; it's an attitude shift," she said. "If we all focus on English like we focus on phonics, great things would happen." Board member Dana Black said the district already has English-only schools, but there are times when students with very-limited-English skills need to use their native language to communicate with others.
   "The [state] board's move doesn't mean that English-only is mandated, either," Black said. "We've already addressed these issues in our schools. Principals and teachers are already speaking with the children in English." The problem with the state-mandated bilingual programs is that it's too difficult for students to qualify to leave them, some school officials said.
   "To be reclassified [from bilingual to English-only] they have to pass through a lot of hurdles," said Ken Killian, principal of Rea Fifth and Sixth Grade Center, which has a very high limited-English student population.
   "A lot of the kids can pass the oral English tests, but they have a real hard time with the standardized English tests." Stokes suggested the district offer alternatives for parents who want English-immersion programs rather than bilingual programs for their children.
   "I think parents would be happy with that because their goal is to have their children learn English," she said. "We have plenty of time, until September, to plan for good programs in the fall."