Los Angeles Times

Wednesday, September 2, 1998

Responses to Prop. 227 All Over the Map
Some districts are seeking exemptions from the requirements, while others are using anywhere from 60% to 90% English in immersion programs. Inititive's sponsor warns of prosecuting violators.
By LOUIS SAHAGUN, Times Staff Writer

RIVERSIDE--As children return to classrooms up and down the state, school districts are hastily devising programs to comply with Proposition 227--and are spinning out a variety of efforts to delay, dilute or embrace the law's requirement that students be taught "nearly all in English."
     No surprise there. The ambiguous language of the initiative was intended to encourage flexibility in developing English immersion programs to replace bilingual education.
     The result is a mix of programs based on various definitions of "nearly all." Some districts have decided that as little as 60% English instruction complies with the law, while others have settled on 70%, 80%, even 90% English. Still others are trying to obtain waivers that would exempt them from the law altogether.
     As for the students, their future academic success or failure will be influenced by the effectiveness of these new, largely untested programs. School districts have rushed to develop the new curriculum since the law, sponsored by Palo Alto software engineer Ron Unz, was approved by 61% of the voters in June.
     "I'm hopeful that if everyone stays committed to bringing these children up to where they can be, we'll weed out the programs that aren't working," said Rae Belisle, legal counsel to the State Board of Education. "We need to get away from our emotional connections to the measure on both sides, behave like adults and move on with what works."
     In the Riverside Unified School District, where 15% of the 36,000 students speak little or no English, "nearly all" means 60% English instruction.
     "We decided that if Unz could call 61% an overwhelming majority of voters in favor of Prop. 227, what the heck is wrong with our program?" said Georgia Hill, the district's assistant superintendent of instructional services.
     Then there is the Compton Unified School District, which has emerged as one of the strictest in implementing the initiative.
     "We think you can provide good English immersion with 90% English instruction--even 98%--and our intent is to prove ourselves right," said Randolph Ward, state administrator of the district, which came under state control in 1993 amid charges of severe mismanagement and political cronyism.
     The San Bernardino City Unified School District and Ventura County's Oxnard School District are aggressively urging parents to file individual waivers to have their children continue in bilingual education. In San Bernardino, an estimated 10% of the district's 45,000 students have signed up for waivers.
     At the same time, three Northern California districts are fighting in Alameda County Superior Court for the right to be excluded from the requirements of the new law. In a partial victory, the court Friday ordered the State Board of Education to give serious consideration to district's requests to have enforcement of Proposition 227 waived.
     The case could have repercussions beyond Northern California because three dozen districts have applied to the state for waivers.
     Unz and his supporters are ready to pounce if districts, administrators or teachers stray too far from the law's basic intent: eliminating bilingual programs in favor of English immersion.
     "A number of school districts are refusing to obey the law," Unz said in an interview.
     "They are not only in the position of being sanctioned by the state Department of Education," he said, "but their individual administrators and teachers can be . . . sued."
     Unz was referring to a provision of the initiative that says educators who willfully violate the law can be held personally responsible.
     "There is a real possibility that some administrators and teachers will lose their homes and be forced into bankruptcy over this," he added. "And I think the public might be sympathetic toward a parent who sues."
     That kind of talk worries Riverside Unified administrators, but not enough to cause them to alter their English immersion effort.
     In the first month of kindergarten class at Liberty Elementary School, teachers devoted their 40% allotment of native language instruction to reading in Spanish.
     One of their first lessons focused on the hard C sound. Since the students don't know English, the teachers asked them to use their native language to come up with words starting with that sound.
     "We begin with words they can contribute in their own language: caballo (horse), camisa (shirt), caja (box)," said bilingual coordinator Betsy Sample. "As their fluency increases, they'll shift to words like 'car,' 'clown,' 'camel.' "
     She proudly pointed to a poster pinned to a classroom wall charting the ways that students travel to school each day. In large, uneven handwritten letters it proclaimed: "4 ninos vienen caminando (four youngsters arrive walking)."
     "They could not have composed this simple sentence if we said they could not speak Spanish," she said.
     Compton Unified administrator Ward said Riverside's approach is all wrong.
"I think it's dangerous to have half a class in Spanish and half in English, because you may end up getting illiteracy in both languages," Ward said. "I lived in South America for two years, so I know that when you speak, listen, watch television and read signs in another language, you will learn it quickly.
     "If our students are going to be tested and evaluated in English, we'd better give them all the English they can get," Ward said.
     Although the state gave school districts wide latitude in implementing Proposition 227, officials hope to eventually provide them with more guidance and assistance. The state has assembled a task force to evaluate the effectiveness of the various English immersion programs.
     "There's a variety of ways to determine what works," said the Board of Education's Belisle. "We'll be filling in the blanks in this process for school districts."