Orange County Register

Wednesday, April 15, 1998

2 More O.C. Districts Join Fight vs. Unz Plan
Santa Ana and La Habra school boards strongly oppose an initiative that would limit bilingual programs.
By AMBER ARELLANO, The Orange County Register

Two Orange County school boards joined three others Tuesday night in opposition to Proposition 227, or the "Unz initiative."

Santa Ana and La Habra school boards both overwhelmingly opposed Prop. 227, which if passed will dramatically limit the kinds of bilingual programs school districts can offer students.

Cheers and whistles greeted Santa Ana's 4-1 vote, which followed more than a dozen mostly personal stories from parents on why the "English for the Children" initiative will hurt their children's education.

"I've seen the economic benefits of bilingual education," Natalia Martinez, a retired bilingual teacher whose two children were bilingual students, told La Habra's board, which voted unanimously against Prop. 227. "We are a global economy. People who are bilingual are marketable to the U.S. and other countries."

Only one Santa Ana trustee opposed the measure, saying she knows from personal experience that English immersion works.

"It worked for me," said Rosemarie Avila, a Guatemalan immigrant who learned English within six months of arrival. "It worked for my brother. Why experiment? It works."

An overwhelming number of parents shared experiences more like Edmundo Cardenas', a Santa Ana parent who has bitter memories of English-immersion when he arrived here from Mexico at age 10. His younger brothers had bilingual assistance, but Cardenas was placed in a mainstream, all-English classroom. He never caught up, and dropped out of school by ninth grade.

Such radically different experiences are key to understanding the often emotional debate surrounding Prop. 227.

Orange County's school boards have become the sounding board for parents on the initiative, which goes before California voters in June. Five other districts have passed resolutions in favor of the intiative.

The resolutions will mean nothing if Prop. 227 is approved. The law would redefine the state's bilingual programs, giving little control to local school boards.

But if the initiative fails, school districts will have the final say in what kinds of bilingual programs they'll offer students. Many parents want a commitment from districts that they will not abandon the programs.

"We know we're fighting a losing battle," said Cardenas, who believes Prop. 227 will pass. "The resolution is a promise to bilingual education in case Unz doesn't win."

Santa Ana will be among the most affected districts in the state if Prop. 227 passes. About 70 percent of its 38,000 students are considered Limited English Proficient, or LEP the second highest number statewide after the Los Angeles Unified School District.

The district already is implementing changes in its bilingual approaches based on its own research and parents' requests. At one elementary school, parents asked educators to increase its English immersion year-by-year. At other schools, teachers are integrating more English at an earlier age, starting in first grade instead of third grade.

Officials of the nearly 6,000-student La Habra school district also expect Prop. 227 to pass, and are preparing to implement its curriculum changes, said Gail Reed, director of the district's English-Plus, or bilingual education, programs.

The district is looking at ways to combine students of different grade levels and language abilities into the same classes, Reed said. Generally, she said, students' individual time with teachers would decrease under the Unz initiative.

Register staff writer Andrew Tuttle contributed to this report.