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California Educators Struggle With End of Bilingual Education

With some classes in session, school officials are concerned new rules mean shortages of books, teachers.

Here's how most of California's elementary and secondary educators spent their summer vacations: worrying.

Worrying, that is, about how to implement the voter-mandated end to the state's bilingual-education program, a philosophical sea change for the nation's most ethnically diverse state.

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While some states with growing immigrant populations, such as Nebraska, are expanding such programs that permit students to continue academic studies in their native tongue as they absorb English, the practice is coming under attack in Congress and in Arizona, Colorado, and New York City, for instance.

Both critics and advocates will be watching California to see if student performance under the change bolsters or undermines their arguments.

Now, with the start of the semester for most California schools just weeks away, and with some students already back in class, it's time for decisions.

Manny Barbara, assistant superintendent of San Jose's Oak Grove School District, has to decide how many of his brand- new Spanish-language reading and writing textbooks to return to the publisher. The state's new anti-bilingual policy requires that classes be taught predominantly in English. But there are exceptions, and Mr. Barbara knows he'll need some Spanish-language material. But how much?

Lloyd Houske, principal of Cahuenga School in Los Angeles, has to figure out how to keep his predominantly Spanish- and Korean-speaking parents involved in educating their children. "When I send home English-language books, they can't help. I've lost part of the team," he says.

Sonia Hernandez, deputy superintendent of the California Department of Education, has had to write emergency guidelines for state educators who may have to walk a fine line between classroom needs and potential lawsuits by the eagle-eyed bilingual-education critics who carried the divisive June ballot initiative to victory.

Change of course

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The torpedoing of bilingual education in California represented a fundamental change of course for a state that, under then-Gov. Ronald Reagan (R), decided in 1967 to permit education in a student's native language.

Backed by the courts and subsequent federal law, bilingual education took hold in this state and elsewhere. But critics have argued student achievement has found-ered under the practice.

Californians and other observers will have to wait for results of student performance under the change. The start of the 1998-99 school year is "ground zero" of the new policy, says Socorro Serrano, a spokesman for the Los Angeles Unified School District. "The real story will be at midterm when the students get tested."

The June initiative required public schools to do most of their instruction in English. Students with limited English proficiency can be put in an intensive English immersion class for a year, but then must be moved into classes taught primarily in English. Previously, many schools allowed students to enroll in a multiyear bilingual program that drew heavily on native tongue material.

California estimates it has 1.4 million school-age children with limited-English ability, about a third of whom have been enrolled in bilingual programs. The new law allows parents to opt their children out of the new English immersion program and continue with bilingual education.

Many schools expect parents to request waivers, but no one is certain how many will do so. Realistically, most schools are preparing to have to offer both bilingual and English-immersion classes.

The bulk of the state's public schools don't open for several weeks, yet some year-round schools had to implement the new policy as their fall term began Aug. 3. In Los Angeles, for instance, 47 schools are one week into the new era.

Christopher Dena Elementary School in East L.A. is one of them. Like most school officials, Dena principal Karen Robertson is waiting to see how many parents of children learning English request waivers.

"I haven't had any waiver requests yet," she says, "but I'm meeting with parents this week and next to explain the options."

Even before a waiver can be granted, all students with limited English must spend at least 30 days in an immersion program, a step that will help many parents decide if the new approach has merit.

Ms. Hernandez of the state Education Department says schools are scrambling to obtain the proper materials. Books for this year were ordered long before the anti-bilingual initiative passed, and the change has left schools with books they can't use and short of others they need.

"Some districts had a strategy in place if the initiative passed, and others are still calling us and asking what to do," says Hernandez.

Hernandez says having enough qualified teachers is another concern. California has embarked on a program to reduce class sizes, which created a shortage of 26,000 fully credentialed teachers last year. English immersion will be a new approach for many schools, and having an adequate number of teachers to keep up with the demand is a worry.

A learning experience

Another issue: Will local districts establish strong and clear guidelines in compliance with the new policy to avoid lawsuits? Initiative author Ron Unz has already announced he'll take calls on a toll-free phone number from those worried about schools failing to comply with the law.

Some districts are already refusing to toe the line. San Francisco and Oakland schools districts have said existing court decrees and federal policies require them to continue with bilingual education.

Meanwhile, Barbara Babin, director of English-language development at the Redwood City School District, says that right now the district's focus is on designing a good immersion program for the mandatory first 30 days of instruction. The path beyond will depend on how many parents request waivers.

"I'm optimistic we'll learn a lot as we go through this," Ms. Babin says. "We'll learn what our community is thinking and what they want."


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