San Francisco Chronicle

Friday, July 31, 1998

Educators Working Around Prop. 227
Districts plan bilingual programs that don't violate law.
By NANETTE ASIMOV, Chronicle Staff Writer

The voters who approved Proposition 227 assumed that by fall, California's schoolchildren would be hearing nothing but English in their classrooms. But in many Bay Area school districts, bilingual education lives.

Educators say most children will find bilingual classes waiting for them when they go back to school, but with one difference: an extra layer of bureaucracy needed to make it all legal under Proposition 227.

California's system of bilingual education is supposed to die Sunday, under the new law approved by voters in June and upheld by a federal judge earlier this month. In its place is supposed to be a single year of English instruction, intended by the proposition's authors to transform 1.4 million immigrant children from tentative foreigners into English-speaking Americans.

Though thousands of students may choose that kind of instruction, thousands may not -- and will not have to, say educators in several Bay Area districts.

``If a child is very limited in English proficiency, we try to offer primary language instruction in all areas of the curriculum,'' said Wayne Miller, bilingual education director for the Mount Diablo Unified School District in Contra Costa County. ``If a student is at a midpoint, then we might offer sheltered English (tailored to language learners) in some areas and primary language instruction in others.

``It's essentially the same as what we offered last year.''

How Mount Diablo and other districts plan to achieve that in this English-only era is a tale of administrative paperwork, high hurdles for parents who speak little English, and great juggling of busing schedules and enrollment plans in districts everywhere.

Proposition 227 sets up stringent conditions that have to be met before a district can offer bilingual education. And though the intent clearly was to discourage that form of schooling, Bay Area educators aren't struggling to eliminate bilingual classes -- they're struggling to satisfy the stringent conditions.

Miller called it ``pure bureaucracy.''

Ron Unz, the software millionaire who co-wrote Proposition 227, called it ``circumventing the law.''

``They're going through an all- out effort to circumvent the law, and then they complain that circumventing the law takes a lot of time and effort,'' Unz said.

He warned that under Proposition 227 any parents who believe their child has been erroneously placed into a bilingual program can sue administrators, school board members and even the teacher.

``It's really very simple,'' Unz said. ``They'll have to pay out of their own pocket personal damages and legal expenses.''

Even parents of native English speakers can sue if they think a district is developing bilingual programs ``when they could be improving education for English- speaking children,'' he said. The new law says that only children with ``special physical, emotional, psychological or educational needs,'' as determined by school officials, may study in a language other than English.

Driving the new bureaucracy machine is a requirement that parents of such students obtain a waiver exempting them from English-only classes.

Most districts in the Bay Area -- including Oakland, Berkeley and Hayward, which are suing the state to gain exemptions from Proposition 227 -- are creating waivers for parents to sign. Even San Francisco and San Jose will use waivers, although both districts claim that a federal court order requires them to teach most non-English speakers in their home language. Creating the waivers is no simple matter. District officials must tell all immigrant families that a waiver is available -- and that means translating such notices into Spanish, Chinese, Pilipino and a host of other languages.

Meanwhile, each school board must decide what criteria to use for accepting parent waivers.

The parents of any children who want bilingual education must personally visit their child's school annually to request the waiver. Each school must set up bilingual classes if 20 children per grade level want them.

Yet all children must be accommodated, even if fewer than 20 want the classes. The law says children must be allowed to transfer to schools that offer them, and that means district officials have to decide which schools might need the classes, and how to bus children who live far away.

All the hoop-jumping will probably achieve much of what Unz and the state's voters intended, said Miller of the Mount Diablo district. ``I anticipate there will be fewer students in the primary language classes, just because of the pure bureaucracy of it.''

To comply with Proposition 227, schools must devise new English-only classes intended to last a year. Every English learner under age 10 has to attend for at least 30 days -- even those who want to go back to bilingual classes.

One school struggling to adapt is Fiesta Gardens Elementary, a popular ``total immersion'' magnet school in San Mateo. There, English and Spanish speakers study together in both languages and become immersed in each other's cultures. Sheila Spieller, a curriculum coordinator for the San Mateo-Foster City school district, suggested that the English-only class would detract from what Fiesta Gardens is trying to do.

``I want those 30 days to be really high quality,'' she said. ``But when you separate the children, you lose the total immersion model where Spanish-speaking kids learn English from the English-speaking kids.''

Such ambivalence infuriates Proposition 227 supporters such as Lola Ford of San Francisco, whose granddaughter will soon be going to kindergarten.

``We'll have teachers just for Pilipino? Just for Spanish? Just for Chinese?'' she said. ``Oh, my heaven above. When I see these people not learning our language when they're in our country, I mean, they're in the USA for God's sake. Learn our ways, please, and respect our ways.'' Guillermina Arroyo wants her three daughters to learn American ways, but she also wants them to retain their Spanish and understand the culture of her native Mexico. So Arroyo plans to visit each of her daughters' schools in San Francisco to sign the waiver.

``Many more doors will be open to them with two languages,'' she said in Spanish. ``I know only one language and can't communicate with anyone.''

San Francisco Superintendent Bill Rojas agrees with Arroyo and had suggested in recent weeks that his district would defy the English-only law. But that has now changed, on advice of attorneys.

``Our theme is `compliant, not defiant,' '' Rojas said. ``We'll ask for a parental consent slip for each and every child in the bilingual education program.''

Yesterday, Rojas sent parents a letter stating that the district ``is able to comply with Proposition 227 and still offer high-quality bilingual education programs.'' The district will offer an English-only class for students who don't speak the language -- but with bilingual teaching assistants.

The district will also continue teaching academics in Spanish, Cantonese or Pilipino, said bilingual director Rosita Apodaca. Other classes will be taught in English as well as Spanish, Cantonese or Korean.

In San Jose, educators said a federal court order requires them to provide such education for the thousands of Spanish-speaking children in their district. A hearing before a federal judge is expected in August, to determine whether the court order overrides Proposition 227.

Attorney Rae Belisle, representing the state Board of Education, is skeptical about any bilingual mandate, noting that such court orders are subject to changes as laws evolve.

``We need to take a look at all these federal consent decrees to determine to what extent these districts are subject to Proposition 227,'' she said. ``We're not sure yet.''