Bilingual classes may get review
With key advocate ousted, the program that he fought for could be affected.

The Orange County Register
Sunday, February 9, 2003

SANTA ANA - As election night wore on and the tears started to flow, Nativo Lopez knew he had lost his seat on the school board. Arms outstretched, he turned to his followers like a shepherd to his flock and urged them to keep fighting for their rights, including bilingual education.

Since 1998, when California slashed bilingual classes under Proposition 227, Lopez had been the general in a paper war to keep them alive in Santa Ana, leading the charge as thousands of parents signed waivers to request instruction in English and Spanish.

Now, some wonder if Lopez's resounding ouster last week was one of the last vestiges of California's fight over bilingual education. His recall resurrected a once-fiery debate that had been pushed aside by concerns about test scores and budget cuts. And his departure is raising doubts about the program's future in Santa Ana, a complex matter for a mostly Hispanic district that has held fast to bilingual education while Hispanics in many other districts have not. "In the recall effort there were many parents raising questions and I believe that they have to have answers," Superintendent Al Mijares said Friday. "The issues that were raised by parents in the last several months tell me that there's a profound need for review."

Beyond Santa Ana
Although language was a pivotal issue during the recall, observers say the reasons for Lopez's defeat were far more complex, ranging from his confrontational style to a neighborhood's opposition to a new school. They say Lopez's opponents have overstated his influence, especially in a city with the highest proportion of Spanish speakers in the United States.

"Nativo Lopez was a supporter of bilingual education, but Nativo Lopez did not run our department," said Howard Bryan, director of English-language development and bilingual programs at Santa Ana Unified. Lopez, who did not return calls for comment, visited schools after Prop. 227 and personally informed parents of their right to sign waivers and place their children in bilingual classes. As bilingual education evaporated in mostly Hispanic districts such as Anaheim City, Santa Ana's bilingual enrollment fell from 11,029 students to 5,894 after Prop. 227, but then held steady at 6,300 last year.

District officials point out that only 15 percent of Santa Ana students are in bilingual classes. But most bilingual education occurs in the lower grades, and the average for elementary students was about 24 percent last year. At several schools it was higher, up to 81 percent at Davis Elementary.

Lopez has been in the public eye for so many years that some observers say he invited scrutiny that has been spared other districts. But for many Orange County districts, bilingual education is a fading issue. Garden Grove Unified, for instance, had more than 17,000 Spanish-speaking students last year, but no waivers.

Placentia-Yorba Linda Unified, in contrast, had an even higher percentage of its kids in bilingual education than Santa Ana last year, ranging from 51 percent to 77 percent in its elementary schools.

But Placentia Superintendent Dennis Smith investigated last year and found that the district was giving waivers out too quickly, which was against state law. This year, they followed the rules and the number of bilingual kindergarten classes plunged to four classes from 12 last year, he said.

"We could be unduly influencing without meaning to," Smith said. "That's not in the spirit of the law."

An Uncertain Future Ron Unz, the millionaire co-author of Prop. 227 who poured thousands of dollars into the anti-Lopez effort, predicted that bilingual education enrollment will drop by 90 percent next year in Santa Ana.

But officials and board members are less sure. Several school board members said they plan to review the board's policies and the performance of bilingual education in the district.

District officials said they inform parents of their options every year and are training teachers and updating textbooks to make all of their programs successful, including bilingual classes. Many parents sign waivers because they want their kids to keep up their academics while they learn another language, officials said.

David Alvarado, 43, an electrician, placed his daughter in bilingual education so she can communicate freely with her family - and have an edge in the business world. Being bilingual is a plus for his non-Hispanic supervisor who speaks fluent Spanish, he said.

"Sometimes he corrects me," Alvarado said with a laugh. "I want my daughter to learn both languages."

Board member Rosemarie Avila backed Prop. 227 but likes dual immersion, a less-common form of bilingual education that teaches native English and Spanish speakers in both languages. Audrey Yamagata Noji and Rob Richardson, who was elected to replace Lopez, support parents' right to choose bilingual education, but cautioned that they should not be pressured to enroll. Board member John Palacio could not be reached for comment.

Board President Sal Tinajero plans to place his own son in dual immersion, but he also expects to take a hard look at the entire program. "I'm sure that (bilingual education) will be reviewed and people will take a look at it," he said.

An unclear legacy
Lopez's opponents blamed low test scores in Santa Ana Unified on bilingual education.

Prop. 227 proponents say the state's test scores have soared since bilingual education was curtailed. Statewide Stanford 9 reading scores for second-graders who aren't fluent in English rose from the 19th percentile in 1998 to the 34th percentile nationally last year. California's bilingual enrollment has fallen from 409,879 five years ago to 151,836 last year.

Others say bilingual education's effect is hard to pin down. For instance, Anaheim City Schools District's average reading scores aren't much higher than Santa Ana's, and Anaheim almost completely dismantled its bilingual programs. Anaheim's second-graders who aren't fluent in English scored at the 30th percentile nationally, while Santa Ana's were at the 25th percentile last year.

Scores have risen in both districts for the past four years.

"Our increase in test scores or decrease in test scores has nothing to do with bilingual education, per se," said Connie Scheid, Anaheim's director of special programs. She attributed the increase to teacher training, parent involvement and learning materials for kids.

In Santa Ana, though, residents can see stark differences among schools. Average test scores at schools with bilingual education are lower - sometimes far lower - than schools without it. "I think where it's not working it should stop, and I don't think people should be pushed into it," said board member Yamagata Noji. "This whole referendum has shown me that our community is changing and our community is much more astute, and I think it's wonderful."
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