Los Angeles Times

Thursday, October 8, 1998

Word Getting Out on Bilingual Class Waivers
Education: Exemptions to keep students out of English-only classes are used overwhelmingly in some areas, and not at all in others.
By KATE FOLMAR, Times Staff Writer

Although voters backed a June ballot initiative meant to end bilingual education, nearly all parents in some Ventura County school districts are using an exemption to keep their kids out of English-only classes.
     In half a dozen school districts in the Ventura and Oxnard area, between 60% and 95% of children who are not fluent in English are filtering back into bilingual classrooms after a 30-day trial run in a "sheltered English immersion" program mandated by Proposition 227. The monthlong period lapses for the last of Ventura County's school districts this week.
     But few parents have signed so-called "parental exemption waivers" in Fillmore and Santa Paula, despite a substantial population of students whose first language is not English. And none were signed in Thousand Oaks and Oak Park, where virtually all students speak English.
     For the first time, school districts this year were forced to educate limited-English-speaking children--"nearly all" in English. Approved by 61% of California voters in June, Proposition 227 was meant to all but eliminate native-language instruction.
     State regulations, however, allow parents to keep their child in bilingual classes if the youngster has "special physical, emotional, psychological or educational needs that an alternate [bilingual] course of educational study would be better suited to the child's overall educational development."
     As the 30-day period ends and school districts around Ventura County begin tallying the number of parents opting to keep bilingual classes, a pattern is emerging: parents have latched onto the waivers by overwhelming margins in some districts and not at all in others.
     Rio Supt. Yolanda Benitez said the dramatic difference in sign-up rates may reflect differences in district philosophy.
     "If you have a successful bilingual program and your community and the school board have supported it, the parents will continue to support that bilingual program" by signing waivers, Benitez said.
     But Sheri Annis of the pro-Proposition 227 group English for the Children said the difference more likely reflects how hard school officials push parents to sign waivers.
     "Some districts are really proselyting in favor of waivers, getting teachers involved, calling parents at home," she said.
     Indeed, districts in Ventura County took very different approaches in recent weeks to notifying parents about the law's exemption.
     Fillmore schools--where waiver rates were low--told parents of the option with two letters. Other school districts hosted many parent meetings to address the topic. In the Rio School District, where many parents are migrant farm laborers, school officials even used a bus to ferry them to schools to sign waivers.
     No state or county agency is tracking how many parents are signing waivers. But the high rates of exemption requests have alarmed proponents of Proposition 227.
     "The Oxnard Plain wins so far for the most waivers requested and, possibly, granted," Annis said.
     Apart from districts that Annis says are ignoring the law, "No district we know of in California has anywhere near the high percentage of waivers that we've seen within the Oxnard and Ventura school districts," she said.
     Annis, who contends legitimate waivers should total no more than 2%, said districts with high waiver rates "are going to have to face legal consequences." Under Proposition 227, teachers and school district administrators can be held individually liable for violations of the new law.
     But local educators say they are following both the letter of the law--as outlined in emergency regulations from the State Board of Education--and its spirit by giving parents educational choices.
     "The state regulations say you must grant the waivers unless you have specific evidence the program requested by the parents would not be beneficial for the children," said Marcia Turner, special projects director in the Ocean View School District. In Turner's district, parents of 60% of limited-English-speaking children have requested bilingual education.
     Because state rules for implementing the law are still evolving, officials with the California Department of Education and the State Board of Education do not say definitively how many waivers are too many. Both supporters and foes of the anti-bilingual education initiative are asking the state board to clarify the issue.
     Bill Lucia, executive director of the state school board, said the question will be handled on a case-by-case basis.
     Officials most likely would initially look at last year's standardized reading scores for children who speak little or no English to gauge effectiveness of its bilingual programs, Lucia said. He said those scores were "pathetic" for many Ventura County school districts with high percentages of waivers.
     While the numbers are not final in all school districts, a decided trend toward waivers has emerged west of the Conejo Grade. Many school districts still have 20 days to decide how many waivers to actually approve.
     In the Ventura Unified School District, bilingual specialist Jennifer Robles anticipates 90% of children who enrolled in bilingual classes last year will be in similar classes this year.
     Backers of the initiative may have miscalculated by advertising it as a matter of family choice, she said. "Parents aren't choosing the same way the voters did."
     In the Hueneme School District, Supt. Robert Fraisse estimated between 90% and 95% of his district's 3,400 limited-English-speaking children have been returned to bilingual classes after a month of English immersion.
     By the beginning of this month, the rural Rio School District received waivers signed for about 83% of its 1,083 children not fluent in English, Supt. Benitez said.
     In the nearby Oxnard School District, waivers have been signed for about 63% of 7,000 limited-English-speaking children, according to Stephanie Purdy, manager of English-language development.
     At Cesar Chavez Elementary in Oxnard, nearly all parents decided to keep their children in bilingual classes after the youngsters struggled through the first 30 days of instruction in English.
     Parent Margot Arellano said her 6-year-old son, Alexis, pleaded with her to sign the waiver.
     During the 30 days of sheltered English immersion, Alexis was miserable, she said. Arellano said she and her husband felt powerless to help their son because they do not speak English.
     "He would come home with stomachaches and crying because he couldn't understand what was going on," she said in Spanish. "Now he no longer cries because he can do the work in Spanish and English. He is better able to sleep at night because he isn't worrying about the consequences of not finishing his homework."
     The situation is reversed farther up the Santa Clara River Valley in Santa Paula and Fillmore, where both districts are reporting virtually no waiver requests despite sizable percentages of children not fluent in English, officials say. Similarly, the Pleasant Valley School District has received waiver requests from fewer than 10% of children whose first language is not English.
     Figures are not yet available for schools in Simi Valley, Moorpark and some smaller districts.