Orange County Register

Tuesday, May 26, 1998

The Prop. 227 Challenge
EDUCATION: Santa Ana Unified, where most students are limited-English, says it would be hard-pressed to abide by the measure.
By AMBER ARELLANO, The Orange County Register

Just a week before California residents will vote on Proposition 227, the Santa Ana Unified School District, potentially the most affected in Orange County, is refusing to consider ways to cope with the initiative's effects.

Other Orange County districts are making plans to implement the June 2 initiative that would virtually eliminate bilingual education and affect 38,000 of Santa Ana's 53,000 students.

But Santa Ana Unified's leaders say it would be virtually impossible to implement the measure in a district where 23 of 32 elementary schools have 80 percent or more limited-English students. No other California school district has a higher percentage of such students.

The district's inaction reflects more than just Santa Ana's unique challenges. It also hints at some of the difficulties the initiative's implementation could face. Among them: Educators sometimes just don't know how to translate its mandates in such overwhelmingly bilingual schools.

And heavy lobbying from parents is pushing the district to resist Prop. 227. The district's bilingual director, Howard Bryan, says he does not expect the district to implement it for at least a year, even though the measure would call for enactment within 60 days. He says the district's position reflects the community's stance against it.

Last month, at a heated school board meeting, dozens of parents spoke passionately against Prop. 227. Not one parent spoke for it. The board promptly passed a resolution opposing it, 4-1.

"That was an indication to us to continue operating as we're operating," said Santa Ana Superintendent Al Mijares.

Other districts with far less at stake are preparing, albeit reluctantly, for the measure. Saddleback Valley, with just 7 percent Limited English Proficiency students, is talking with San Juan Capistrano officials about joint programs the districts could enact within the limits of the measure.

In La Habra, orders of new English books are on hold and hundreds of teachers are beginning English-immersion training. Officials are considering moving limited-English students of different grade levels to the same classes to accommodate Prop. 227's one-year limit on bilingual teaching.

"We expect students' individual time with a teacher would be decreased considerably," said Gail Reed, bilingual director of the district's K-8 schools. "That's generally not seen as a good thing."

When the Westminster School District changed to all-English instruction, it took the K-8 district one year to come up with the plans, said Tracy Painter, director of special projects who led the switch approved in January.

Santa Ana isn't planning re-training, new curriculum or anything else to prepare for Prop. 227. Superintendent Mijares says the district isn't squandering time it might need to plan for the measure's changes. He expects court rulings to prevent its implementation in schools.

Santa Ana educators aren't sure what to do. They point to schools such as Martin Luther King Elementary when they talk about why putting Prop. 227 in place will be nearly impossible.

MLK is in one of Santa Ana's densest, most immigrant-populated neighborhoods. Toddlers have little access to English-speakers or books. Only a handful of students knew any English before enrolling; 91 percent of its 892 K-5 students are Limited English Proficiency.

At this cheery yellow school, every class is bilingual. Unlike say, an Irvine or Huntington Beach school, MLK has no all-English, mainstream classes.

"It's easy to place four Spanish-speaking students in a class of all English-speakers," said Bryan. "When you have 900 out of 950 students speaking Spanish, you can't do that."

Rather than integrating students, educators could change their teaching approach, however, to English immersion. But parents are lobbying hard against it.

About 64 percent of MLK's parents choose a transitional bilingual approach for their children. Under the approach, kindergarten students learn in almost full-time Spanish and gradually move to full-time English by second or third grade.

Under Prop. 227, students would receive one year of intensive English immersion in English and then be placed in classes with fluent English speakers.

That frustrates parents such as Maria Elena Arollo, who has chosen English-immersion for her son Joseph Gomez, 5. "He already knows Spanish, so why let him learn it?" she says, but adds his education is her choice, not the state's.

By far the most vocal parents, however, are those whose children are struggling with Spanish reading, much less learning English. Among them: Victoria Mendoza, who has rallied parents and stops by the school's office almost daily pumping educators for any word on how Prop. 227 will affect her daughter, Vickie.

Vickie is a first-grader in a low-ability Spanish reading group, in a transitional approach. She's a dedicated student, studying two hours every night, but is lagging behind her peers.

"She's already frustrated," Mendoza said. "I'm afraid she'll give up (in English-immersion)."

Vickie gets extra class help from bilingual classroom aides, who translate for her when her teacher is speaking English.

Santa Ana has 302 aides district-wide. The initiative makes no mention of them. No one is sure whether they'll be laid off.

Neither does Prop. 227 specify exactly how Mendoza would transfer Vickie back into a bilingual classrooms, or appeal a "no" decision to her request, if Vickie fails under Prop. 227's approach.

There are other hurdles for Santa Ana to surmount, educators say. Just buying English books for its 38,000 limited-English students by next school year would be impossible for the financially strapped district, says Bryan.

If Santa Ana doesn't commit to Prop. 227's changes in 60 days, it could risk being sued. Bryan said he expects some teachers to refuse compliance, with statements like "I'm going to do what the kids need. If they need Spanish, that's what I'm going to use."

Bryan added that district officials "expect school districts like Santa Ana will sue" to prevent Prop. 227's implementation. Will Santa Ana sue? "I haven't heard that. Maybe the board knows some information we don't," said Bryan.

Mijares answered such questions with questions. Nativo Lopez, the school board president, did not return calls.

"The board wouldn't want people to think they're preparing for it," said trustee Rosemarie Avila when asked to comment on the district's stance. Avila, who was in the minority on the board's vote on Prop. 227, said it will be hard for the district to change.

Santa Ana isn't alone in its resistance to 227. Saddleback Valley officials are meeting with attorneys to see if the district can escape the initiative's changes, said Gloria Roelan, district coordinator for second languages programs. They've also written to state school board members for direction on how to keep their bilingual programs.

"We're trying to be pro-active, but it doesn't look good for us," she said.