San Jose Mercury News

Thursday, October 8, 1998

Bilingual Classes on the Way Back
Seeking to implement an escape clause, many parents ask to have Prop. 227 waived.
By MICHAEL BAZELEY, Mercury News Staff Writer

When Californians passed Proposition 227 in June, they envisioned classes like Lourdes Andrade's.

Although most of her students come from Spanish-speaking homes, the colorful posters, alphabet signs and chalkboard writings in her classroom are in English. When Andrade talks to her class, it's in English. And when students do assignments, they are in English.

What many voters did not realize, though, is that Andrade's experiment with English instruction would be short-lived. Next week, she'll get the go-ahead to welcome Spanish back into her classroom.

``It's going to make things easier for the kids, which pleases me because the children will understand what I'm saying,'' said Andrade, who teaches at Slonaker Elementary in San Jose's Alum Rock School District.

In schools up and down the state, bilingual education is refusing to go away, kept alive by parents taking advantage of a huge opening in the new law. Beginning this month, after a mandatory 30-day period of English instruction, an untold number of bilingual teachers will heed the wishes of parents and go back to teaching children in Spanish or other native languages.

Alum Rock School District, which serves the largest non-English-speaking population in Santa Clara County, had received 2,749 parent requests for bilingual classes as of Friday. That's about 35 percent of the district's 7,800 students who speak English with limited proficiency.

``All the parents I know want the (bilingual) program to continue,'' said Araceli Pano, a parent of a student at Slonaker.

Pano is one of 235 Slonaker parents who have requested bilingual classes for their children. Her two daughters have been in English-language classes since the start of the school year, and the results are not encouraging, she said.

One daughter is losing interest in school. And Pano and her husband, who both speak only Spanish, are frustrated at not being able to help with homework.

``There are a lot of subjects that we haven't been able to help them with, such as reading,'' Pano said. ``We feel very helpless. I'm very worried.''

Under the new law, all students not fluent in English should be automatically enrolled in yearlong ``sheltered English immersion'' classes, where ``nearly all'' instruction is in English.

Parents have an out

But the architect of Proposition 227, Palo Alto businessman Ron Unz, also gave parents an out. As he wrote it, the law allows them to request bilingual classes after their children spend a month in English-language classes. Unz predicted no more than 5 or 10 percent of parents would seek the bilingual waivers. But as the first month of school draws to a close, the numbers are much higher -- close to 100 percent in some districts.

In Mountain View, 551 parents, representing 99 percent of limited English proficient students, asked for their children to stay in bilingual classes. Just five students opted for the English immersion.

The response was more divided at San Jose's Oak Grove School District. Last year, the district had six schools with bilingual teachers. After processing waivers, officials will eliminate bilingual classes at three schools. But three other campuses will continue with at least some bilingual instruction.

Elsewhere around the state, districts also report strong interest in bilingual classes. In the Hueneme district in Ventura County, the parents of more than 99 percent of the limited-English speakers asked for waivers. The Oxnard School District reported about 90 percent.

Backers of the initiative said they are not surprised by the support for bilingual classes. They contend schools are encouraging parents to apply for the waivers.

In Oxnard, for example, parents received a hand-out that said the English immersion program would ``replace academic instruction'' and provide kindergartners with ``no reading/writing readiness instruction.''

``When a parent is told their child will fall behind . . . I feel they're pushing parents to the waivers,'' said Proposition 227 spokeswoman Sheri Annis.

Educators disputed that, saying they have not steered parents in either direction.

A chance to explain

But school officials do acknowledge that well-attended informational meetings about the law gave schools an unprecedented opportunity to explain to parents how they were educating children.

``I think the opportunity to give parents more information has been a benefit,'' said Patricia Bubenik, superintendent of the Mountain View School District. ``We've found very gratifying support for the program we have developed over time.''

In the Franklin-McKinley School District in East San Jose, parents caught officials off-guard by requesting bilingual classes at two schools that did not offer them.

``Many of the parents are saying they wanted their child in a bilingual program all along but the school didn't have it available so they didn't select it,'' said Charles Parchment, director of language development for the district. ``It's been a surprise that so many want bilingual.''

Local officials say not all of the waivers will be granted. In some instances, school officials may decide that it is better educationally for students to remain in English classrooms.

Not everyone is seeking to take advantage of the law's loopholes. Indeed, hundreds of bilingual California teachers will start teaching in English this year at the request of parents. Some districts that do not use bilingual education, such as Westminster Elementary in Orange County, have received few if any waiver requests.

At Miller Elementary in East San Jose, just 27 parents had asked for bilingual classes as of Friday. That means nearly all teachers will be teaching in English for the rest of the year.

First-grade teacher Sylvia Carrasco is none too happy about it.

``I'm just being a good citizen, obeying the law, but it's sad,'' Carrasco said as she surveyed the new English-language posters and books in her room. ``I feel a real sadness.''

`A lot of blank stares'

In another Miller classroom, second-grade teacher Osiel Gutiérrez is getting ``a lot of blank stares'' from students suddenly thrust into an English-language setting. But he vowed not to fall back on his Spanish skills too much to help them.

``I don't want them to have too many crutches,'' he said. ``I'll try to work with them mostly in English.''

Annis said the Proposition 227 campaign will continue to monitor how the law is being carried out and decide whether to pursue legal action. The campaign office has become a ``clearinghouse for complaints'' from parents and is planning to send districts a letter clarifying the law's intent.

``We'll try to deal with it in a non-legal way,'' Annis said. ``But voters did not vote for 50 or 80 or 90 percent of students to get waivers from this.''

Mercury News Staff Writer Edwin Garcia contributed to this report.