Orange County Register

Thursday, January 8, 1998

City Can Keep English-Immersion Schools
STATE: Westminster gets a surprise permanent exemption on bilingual education.
By DENNIS LOVE, The Orange County Register

SACRAMENTO Westminster School District can continue its English-immersion program permanently, the State Board of Education ruled Wednesday.

The unanimous decision makes Westminister the first district in California to gain permanent approval. The decision came as a surprise, since some board members had indicated they would be reluctant to grant approval of a permanent waiver of the state-mandated bilingual education program.

Also working against the district was a recommendation from the State Department of Education's bilingual compliance department that the board only grant a two-year extension of the temporary waiver granted in February 1996.

But the board was swayed by Westminster officials' glowing assessment of academic progress made by limited-English students, as well as by an argument by a Westminster school board attorney that any extension of a waiver beyond 24 months legally amounted to a permanent waiver.

The board even excused the district from submitting progress reports on its program beyond standard reports required of all school districts in the state.

"We got it all!" said an elated Tracy Painter, Westminster's director of special projects, in which children receive limited help in their own language from bilingual teachers' aides. "We got what's best for the kids."

The diverse, 9,500-student district was the first in the state to obtain a temporary waiver from state requirements that limited-English students receive instruction in their native language so they won't fall behind English-speaking kids.

Three other school districts all in Orange County subsequently received temporary waivers: Magnolia, Savanna and Orange Unified.

Wednesday's decision likely will have a ripple effect on other school boards that have been watching Westminster's progress. First up may be the West Covina school district in Los Angeles County, said Hector Burke, an administrator with the Department of Education's bilingual division.

The decision also reverberates in an election year in which an "English for the Children" initiative backed by Palo Alto entrepreneur Ron Unz will be on the June ballot. The measure would effectively dismantle bilingual instruction in California.

But many warned against calling English-immersion programs a success based on the Westminster decision. Norm Gold, bilingual compliance manager for the State Department of Education, told the board Wednesday that the Westminster results were decidedly mixed and to declare the concept a success "would be a premature conclusion."

Gold argued that the Westminster district fell short on two of three goals set:

  • The number of limited-English students who achieved English fluency, known as the "redesignation rate." Gold said the district's rate was 4 percent of its limited-English population, well below its goal of 8 percent. But Westminster officials argued that updated data showed a rate of 10 percent.
  • The increase in English proficiency of limited-English students. The goal was 90 percent or more of limited-English students would gain at least one English language proficiency level per year, as measured by a specified test. In reality, 76 percent gained one proficiency level or more.
  • In the third category, overall academic achievement of limited-English students, both sides agreed the district has exceeded expectations.

    Kelly Hayes-Raitt, spokeswoman for Citizens for an Educated America, a group opposed to English-only education, said Westminster provides a cautionary example of what California could face if the initiative sponsored by Ron Unz passes in June.

    "It's clear that kids can't learn English in only one year," she said. "If Unz passes, we could be stuck permanently with these dismal results."

    However, Bill Lewis, president of the Orange Unified School Board, said approval of Westminster's plan bodes well for his district, which converted to English-only instruction in July. Lewis also speculated that the state board was bowing to what he called the inevitable passage of Unz's initiative in June.

    "What would be the point of having them derail a program only to have it implemented back later this year?" he said. "The train is running so hard in that direction now, there's now way it's going to turn around."

    State board members Wednesday heard a spirited debate between Gold and Westminster officials over the actual progress Westminster's limited-English students have made since the original waiver was granted.

    "This was an ambitious target," Westminster Superintendent Barbara DeHart said. "These are still excellent results and indicate significant progress for students."

    The board clearly agreed. Board member Janet Nicholas said: "The bottom line around this table is, 'Are kids learning English and doing well academically?' From my perspective, the kids are more important than some piece of paper floating around Sacramento."