Los Angeles Times

Tuesday, July 28, 1998

Charter Schools Exempt From Prop. 227, State Says
Education: Bilingual programs may continue. Impact is limited now, but could grow as such campuses increase.
By DUKE HELFAND, Times Staff Writer

California's 154 experimental charter schools are exempt from the provisions of Proposition 227 and remain free to continue bilingual education programs without sanctions, state education officials said Monday.
     The state's interpretation of the successful initiative was prompted by a San Fernando Valley charter school where the principal ordered that several hundred Spanish-speaking students be taught in Spanish for the new semester that starts this week.
     California charter schools are exempt from virtually all state education codes as part of a legislative effort to foster innovation. Based on their reading of state education code and the new law, attorneys for the state Department of Education said the campuses also are exempt from Proposition 227, which requires public schools to replace bilingual education programs with English immersion.
     "A charter school needs only comply with all of the provisions set forth in its charter petition, but is otherwise exempt from the laws governing school districts," said Allan Keown, deputy general counsel for the state Department of Education.
     Proposition 227 author Ron Unz said he would not challenge the state's decision, largely because it covers so few campuses.
     But the exemption of charter schools from the initiative could have broad impact in coming years, when hundreds more are expected to open under new legislation designed to expand the charter school movement.
     Unz said bilingual education advocates could seek charter petitions to skirt the initiative.
     "There certainly is an indication that a lot of existing bilingual programs want to reconfigure themselves as charter schools," Unz said. "It's not clear how many will go through with it."
     Since passage of Proposition 227 by voters last month, public schools across California have been nervously crafting plans to satisfy the new anti-bilingual initiative for the coming school year. Educators are uncertain, for example, how much Spanish can be spoken during classroom instruction.
     The Los Angeles Unified School District is offering different versions of English immersion. Parents can ask, for example, that their children be taught in English with the help of bilingual aides or teachers. Parents also can seek waivers for their children to learn in their primary language.
     Educators at several of the 15 charter schools in the Los Angeles district said they are still weighing their options. The leaders of a South Los Angeles charter school that includes kindergarten through 7th grade said they want to preserve bilingual education, as long as parents agree.
     The Accelerated School, located near USC, modeled its bilingual program after that of L.A. Unified: Students are taught initially in their primary language and are expected to move to English-language instruction by the end of third grade--a method the school's founders say they have found effective.
     "We definitely have our preference," said co-director Johnathan Williams. "We feel, absolutely, that bilingual educational support is best for our students."
     Montague Charter Academy in Pacoima, on the other hand, will follow the district's plan for its students, 80% of whom speak only limited English. Montague's charter requires the school to mirror bilingual programs in Los Angeles Unified.
     "We've had a lot of parents asking for English," said Montague Principal Diane Pritchard. "I think either approach--immersion in English or primary language--can be effective. It's the quality of the teacher that makes the difference."
     But Vaughn Next Century Learning Center, also in Pacoima, moved ahead with its plans for Spanish-language instruction Monday. An inquiry from The Times about the school prompted the state to review whether Proposition 227 applied to charter schools.
     More than 80% of Vaughn's students have limited proficiency in English. Students with the least command of English--about 500 pupils in kindergarten through second grade--will spend 90 minutes a day learning to read and write in Spanish.
     Those students will spend the majority of the day, however, learning in so-called sheltered English, where teachers speak English slowly and use hand gestures and role-playing.
     The rest of the student body will be taught in sheltered English the entire day.
     Vaughn Principal Yvonne Chan said she and her staff decided to pursue bilingual education because they continue to believe that teaching students first in their native language enables them to eventually make a quicker transition to English.
     "You use the primary language so students will label in English the concepts and ideas they already know in their mother tongue," she said.
     Chan has actively recruited bilingual teachers, more than doubling the number over the past four years to 36. The school has set a goal of preparing its students to enter mainstream English-language classes by the end of third grade.
     Vaughn held meetings Saturday and Monday, and will hold a session today to inform parents of the bilingual program--and to promise that their youngsters will eventually master English.
     "We are going to assure that all your children will become English-proficient as soon as possible," Chan told parents before classes early Monday. "If your child is [a beginning English speaker], they will get teachers who will help them in Spanish."
     One class of first-graders began their semester Monday by reciting the Pledge of Allegiance in English and Spanish. Then they launched into a reading exercise in Spanish.
     Teacher Tanya Pauley asked the students to repeat sentences about a monkey named Bono. "Si, si, Bono! Tu te portas bien," Pauley and the 19 students said. "Yes, yes, Bono! You are behaving well."
     Unz said he did not have any objections to the Vaughn plan. It appears close to the guidelines laid down by Proposition 227, he said, which call for students to spend "nearly all" their class time in English-language classes.
     "We don't think this is something that represents a significant violation of the letter or spirit of Proposition 227," he said.