Ruling lets bilingual classrooms participate in program
Ventura County Star 
March 2, 2004
By Erinn Hutkin,
Denis O'Leary sent his son, David, to bilingual first grade despite suggestions from his English-only kindergarten teacher that the quiet, Spanish-speaking boy repeat the year without advancing.

Yet in first grade, everything clicked. David O'Leary learned to read and write in Spanish and English. Now a third-grader, he performs well above grade level.

O'Leary uses the story as an example of how the state's bilingual program is working. So as a parent, teacher and Oxnard School District board member, he was prompted to become involved when he saw the state Board of Education exclude bilingual students from a program promoting literacy.

O'Leary was involved with a lawsuit against the state regarding a federally funded program called Reading First. The program -- started two years ago as part of the No Child Left Behind Act -- aims to allow teachers to ensure kindergarteners through third-graders are reading at grade level.

California receives $133 million annually for the program for six years.

However, O'Leary said when the state began allocating Reading First money to districts last year, bilingual classrooms were ineligible. Bilingual districts such as Oxnard could apply for the money, but funds could only be used in English-speaking classrooms.

"It was basically discriminating against a legal practice," O'Leary said. "Bilingual education is a legal option."

That fact prompted Californians Together, a group working on policy issues affecting English learners, to file a lawsuit in March 2003. The suit was settled two weeks ago, and bilingual classrooms are now eligible for Reading First money.

O'Leary, who joined the suit as a parent of bilingual students and a member of the League of United Latin American Citizens, now wants to educate Oxnard teachers about Reading First with the hope the district implements the program.

If Oxnard participates, it could receive about $1 million annually for six years.

"I'm going to suggest we look very strongly at this program. ... We're cutting money. ... We need to bring up our academics," O'Leary said. "This is some money that could very well help."

Last year, the Oxnard board let teachers at eligible schools vote on whether they wanted the program. Although the district was approved for a Reading First grant, teachers turned down the idea because O'Leary believes there was misinformation about several issues -- including the number of required teacher training hours.

Martha Hernandez, Oxnard's administrator of curriculum, assessment and instructional services, said teachers at Reading First schools must complete 80 hours of training over the six-year span of the grant. She said the district is looking at ways for teachers to train online, which she said could make it easier for instructors to participate.

To accept a Reading First grant, Hernandez said half of Oxnard's 11 eligible schools must agree to take part. She said teachers at two schools -- Ramona and Cesar Chavez --have voted in favor of the program.

Californians Together President Shelly Spiegel-Coleman said Oxnard's bilingual students were not the only Ventura County students disqualified from Reading First. Elementary districts in Fillmore, Hueneme, Ocean View, Rio, Ventura and Moorpark also teach bilingual classes. She said the districts are now on a priority list to receive $13.3 million in additional Reading First funds from the federal government.

Meanwhile, regardless of whether Oxnard participates, O'Leary said he is pleased all students are eligible.

"The bottom line is it's at least available to kids in the state," O' Leary said. "Last year, it wasn't."