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Bilingual waivers restricted

State schools chief tightens criteria under Prop. 203

By Jennifer Sterba, Jonathan Higuera and
Barrett Marson

PHOENIX - State schools chief Tom Horne said Thursday that he'll crack down on "abuses" he says have allowed too many students into bilingual rather than English-only classes.

Horne issued new guidelines that come from his strict interpretation of Proposition 203, the law approved by voters in 2000 that requires English-only learning in schools.

Starting in August, his rules will restrict the number of waivers that parents can receive to exempt their children from English-only classes and allow them to attend bilingual classes.

The new guidelines are supported by Superintendent Stan Paz of Tucson Unified School District, the city's largest district.

"With those changes, we believe the abuses that have occurred will end and the intent of the initiative will be accomplished, which is that children will learn English as quickly as possible and then they will excel
academically," said Horne, a Republican elected in November.

Those who supported Prop. 203 applaud the new guidelines.

"We are looking forward to English immersion for our Mexican-American students in our schools," said Maria Mendoza, who spearheaded the Prop. 203 petition drive. "Finally these children will have the equal opportunity to be academically successful. The key to success is to be fluent in English."

Opponents see it as an attempt to do away with waivers, something voters approved in 2000. The voter-approved law spelled out several circumstances under which schools could grant waivers.

"When laws are passed that do not reflect social reality, it's difficult to enforce them properly," said Raquel Rubio-Goldsmith, a lecturer in the Mexican-American studies department at the University of Arizona, and community activist. "The waiver is the one safety valve to help a very bad situation. Anything that makes it more difficult to get a waiver is problematic."

Horne will put on seminars in the spring to show districts the "best practices" for teaching English learners. Adopting the programs is not mandatory.

Prop. 203 demands English immersion for students with little or no understanding of the language. Waivers that allow bilingual education are granted based on a child's special needs and by showing a student has "good English skills," according to the law.

However, supporters of Prop. 203 say districts have been abusing the waiver system.

"I think the plan is exactly what we need because there are too many loopholes in bilingual education," said Hector Ayala, co-director of English for Children, which helped get Prop. 203 passed in fall 2000. "The waivers were very easy to get."

Ayala teaches English at Cholla High School in TUSD, Tucson's largest school district with more than 60,000 students.

TUSD granted 5,835 waivers this year - 2,000-plus more than it approved last year for parents wanting their children to take bilingual classes.

Denying only 279 requests for waivers, TUSD approved 95.4 percent of this year's requests.

TUSD curriculum specialist Salvador Gabaldon credited this year's boom in waivers to increased public awareness.

"Parent groups made sure information about waivers was put out on Spanish radio," he said. Last year, "a lot of people thought bilingual education had been wiped out."

Sunnyside Unified School District, which serves about 15,000 students predominantly on the city's South Side, approved 1,834 waivers last year out of 5,890 English learners identified by the district. The district granted about 1,500 waivers this year out of 2,000 requests, said Jeannie Favela, director of Sunnyside's language acquisition and development.

"If we were abusing the system, we would be able to grant every single waiver that came down the pike," she said.

Horne refused to single out any district for abusing the waivers. The most common waiver granted by districts is the one that allows students with some English knowledge to sit in bilingual classes.

"Limited English language skills is not good English language skills no matter what language you read that in or translate it to," Horne said.

Marty Cortez, president of the Tucson Hispanic Coalition, which represents 19 Hispanic and Hispanic-serving groups, said, "It's a move to doing away with waivers, period. The law says and it stipulates on what grounds the student can get a waiver. If they are going to change the standards, essentially they want to change law."

Favela agreed, saying changing the law would affect mostly children under the age of 10. She said Sunnyside turned down about 250 requests for waivers for children under the age of 10 this year. If they can't speak a word of English, they don't qualify under Proposition 203 for bilingual classes.

"If you're thrust in it (English immersion classes) and you don't have any support, are you going to pass that AIMS test?" Favela asked. "I don't think so … We might be exposing kids to superficial English and not giving kids the opportunity to develop proficiency that's ultimately going to help them."

Fabiola Reyes, a 12-year-old seventh-grader at Hohokam Middle School, said she wouldn't be able to keep up in class if she couldn't take her bilingual Spanish class. There, she and about 20 students learn how to translate Spanish to English.

"I speak both," she said. "The most, I know how to speak Spanish."

"I wouldn't understand some of the words," Fabiola said. "I don't know how to speak formal English."

Her mother, Maria Reyes, said not being able to take a bilingual class would be like her daughter losing a part of her culture.

Other parents are more supportive of Horne's efforts.

"If they're going to school here, I feel they shouldn't get waivers," said Theresa Gutierrez, a parent at Sahuaro High School. "I think they should learn to speak English so they can be taught in this country."

Gutierrez said while she is Hispanic, she is not bilingual.

The other two waivers are less common but there will be changes to obtain those, also. Some districts use a "cookie cutter" format, Horne said.

"These waivers cannot be mass produced or duplicated," he said. "There must be documentation that there has been a determination of the specific needs of an individual student."

TUSD associate superintendent Becky Montaño said the district was already doing individual evaluations, as required by law.

"We've been doing that for years," Favela said of Sunnyside.

Speaking in front of an English learners class at Andalucia Middle School in Phoenix, Horne said districts that do not comply with the guidelines face severe penalties, including a possible loss of accreditation and funding.

Montaño said they will have to examine Horne's proposed guidelines closely to see what the district will need to specifically change for next semester.

Horne said he is not trying to eliminate all bilingual programs.

"Once you demonstrate true proficiency, then we have no problem with a quality dual-language program because then a student is functioning in English and it's like academically learning another language," he said.

* Contact reporter Jennifer Sterba at 573-4191 or at jsterba@azstarnet.com.

* Should the state restrict the ability of parents to put their children in bilingual classes?

* Should schools be limited in the number of waivers they grant to students?