San Jose Mercury News

Friday, June 26, 1998

Fremont Seeking Bilingual Waiver
Proposition 227: It's one of nine school districts asking the state to grant exemptions for a variety of reasons.
By SANDY KLEFFMAN, Mercury News Staff Writer

The Fremont Unified School District has joined eight other districts throughout California in seeking a state waiver that would allow them to continue their bilingual education programs.

The districts want permission to skirt Proposition 227, which voters overwhelmingly approved in June. The initiative virtually outlawed bilingual education, calling instead for most non-English-speaking students to spend a year in an intensive English program, then be moved to regular classrooms.

Districts such as Fremont, San Jose, Hayward, Oakland and Berkeley argue that they should be exempted from the new law for various reasons.

San Francisco officials have gone a step further, announcing plans for outright defiance. Superintendent Bill Rojas has said he would rather go to jail than abide by a law he called ``immoral.''

The state Board of Education is to meet in Sacramento today to discuss plans for implementation. First on the agenda is whether the board even has the authority to grant waivers. The legislative counsel for the Assembly and state Senate contends the board does not have such power.

Yet Fremont school officials, spurred on by parents anxious to keep their children in bilingual programs, believe they can make a good case for an exemption.

The Fremont school board voted unanimously Wednesday night to seek a waiver. Forms were faxed Thursday to Sacramento. Parents also have been distributing petitions that they plan to present to the state.

Fremont schools Superintendent Sharon Jones noted that while Proposition 227 garnered 60 percent of the vote statewide, it failed in Alameda and San Francisco counties.

``Maybe bilingual education didn't work in L.A., but it works here,'' said parent Valerie Stewart, a member of the bilingual advisory committee at Vallejo Mill School in Fremont. ``227 is not the will of the people in Alameda County.''

Failure or success?
Proponents of the initiative argue that bilingual programs have been a dismal and costly failure in California. They say students spend years trapped in such classes without learning English.

Jones countered that test results in Fremont show that students with little or no English skill who begin their education in bilingual classes, and then are reclassified as fluent in English, outperform those who are native English speakers.

Fremont's bilingual program is different from some others throughout the state. Fremont has 1,000 students in bilingual programs at Azevada, Blacow, Cabrillo, Forest Park, Grimmer and Vallejo Mill elementary schools. Nearly half of those students, however, are native English speakers whose parents placed them in the classes so they could learn a foreign language.

Differing programs
With parental permission, these students remain in the bilingual program from kindergarten through sixth grade. That differs from some other bilingual programs, in which students are moved out as soon as they become fluent in English. Students are taught in English and Spanish (or English and Mandarin at Forest Park school).

The goal in Fremont is to produce students who are truly bilingual, not just to teach English.

``We have a vision that kids need to graduate speaking two languages -- not one,'' Jones said. ``It's the reason why our bilingual programs have won national awards.''

Julia Cerna, whose first language was Spanish, went through the bilingual program at Vallejo Mill and now has her own children enrolled there. She is fighting to save the program because she believes it is important for her children to have strong Spanish skills as well as English. She fears her children won't be able to write in Spanish and speak it well if they are placed in an English-immersion program.

``Being bilingual opens doors,'' she said. ``A lot of people are looking for bilingual employees.''

Fremont has another 1,300 students who receive some form of English-language assistance while being taught primarily in English.

If the waiver fails, Fremont officials are pinning their hopes on a judge granting an injunction to block the law. The Mexican-American Legal Defense and Education Fund and other civil rights groups have filed a class action lawsuit alleging that Proposition 227 violates the civil rights of non-English-speaking children by requiring them to be taught in English.

Backlash foreseen
Proposition 227 supporters saw the backlash coming. They included a provision in the initiative stating that teachers, school administrators and elected officials could be sued if they flout the law.

Jones said that if the waiver and injunction fail, Fremont will attempt to comply with the law.

Initial plans are to transform Fremont's bilingual programs into classes similar to the one at Forest Park, where students are taught in English except for one period each day. During that period, they have instruction in a foreign language.

Students with limited English skills would be placed in a one-year immersion program. But unlike Fremont's existing sheltered programs, in which students learn English but also are instructed in the other subjects that are being taught at their grade level, the immersion program would focus only on language development. Jones said that may put students behind a year.

``We're having a fit about that because it makes every kid who comes in as a (limited-English) student in high school a five-year student,'' she said.