Original URL: http://www.insidevc.com/vcs/ox/article/0,1375,VCS_238_1484764,00.html

6 seek 3 trustee spots for Oxnard district

By Kathleen Wilson, wilson@insidevc.com
Ventura County Star October 17, 2002

Trustees elected to the Oxnard School District board in November must figure out how to boost learning amid controversy over bilingual education and to deal with contentious labor relations with teachers.

The debates over those questions come in a year when incumbents Roy Caffrey, Arthur Joe Lopez and Dorothie Sterling
are seeking re-election, meaning there is no vacant seat for the challengers to grab. The challengers are businesswoman and former teacher Ana Del Rio Barba, retired Oxnard principal John MacArthur and Rio School District teacher Denis O'Leary.

Though all six candidates are either current or former educators, they have different views on the issues, including
bilingual education.

Sterling said the program needs to be changed. Caffrey wants to take a close look at other methods. And Lopez said
the board should look closely and routinely at how well it's being implemented. Trustee Bill Thrasher, who is not up for election this year, has expressed strong reservations about the program and questioned whether too much Spanish is being taught. The fifth trustee, Francisco Dominguez, has shown support for it.

Whether the board's view on bilingual education would change with new trustees is unclear. But O'Leary and MacArthur both consider themselves advocates for bilingual education. Barba said she wants to examine the data on the program before making up her mind.

How bilingual education works

Under bilingual education, students are taught academic courses in Spanish while they learn English, eventually moving into mainstream English classes by the fourth grade. Voters curtailed the offering of bilingual education when they passed Proposition 227, but the initiative allows parents to sign waivers requesting it.

Many parents in the district, which has the largest number of limited-English students in the county, have done just
that. Last year, state records showed that 45 percent of the Oxnard district's limited-English students were taught
using the approach compared to 31 percent in the county and 11 percent statewide.

Thrasher drew criticism earlier this year when he said he was frustrated by the amount of Spanish used in the schools
and by parents speaking Spanish at board meetings.

Some officials say Thrasher was not reacting so much to parents' right to speak in Spanish, as to how language is
taught. And several trustees indicated they are questioning aspects of the program.

"I think bilingual education is necessary but in a different mode than now being offered," Sterling said. "I think there
has to be more emphasis on English by teachers who speak Spanish as an example for their students. We have
some excellent bilingual teachers and we have some that, in my considered opinion, speak too much Spanish."

Caffrey wants more analysis

Caffrey, a retired Hueneme School District teacher, said he is interested in examining the effectiveness of bilingual
education and other means of teaching limited-English students. He called for analyzing why some school districts that
dropped bilingual education after voters passed Proposition 227 in 1998 have seen student test scores rise

"What is it that they're doing that seems to be effective in English-language instruction?" he said. "If they are able to improve their children's education and at the same time improve English-language acquisition through another method,
then I think we should discuss what is that other method. Right now we've only heard the bilingual side. I want to hear the other side."

Incumbent Lopez said the program has not been evaluated closely as the district has focused on reading, writing and math.
"There's nothing wrong with revisiting this," the Santa Paula middle school teacher said.

The challengers expressed mixed opinions as well.

Barba said she wants to check the results first. "I would follow the law," she said. "I believe there are some areas that need to be looked at. Let's look at our program and what's working and isn't working."

MacArthur called for more support for students in the upper grades to help them learn the nuances of the English language
and more careful selection of students for bilingual classes.

O'Leary has been an advocate

O'Leary said he believes in bilingual instruction because as a former exchange student in Chile he knows what it's like to be educated in a foreign culture. As an educator, he has advocated for it locally, in Sacramento and around the nation. Without it, he said, students fall too far behind in learning their subjects as they pick up English.

"It works," said O'Leary, president of the Ventura County chapter of the California Association for Bilingual Education. "It is superior to English immersion."

He added, though, that he fully supports the parents' right to choose the method of instruction, as Proposition 227 allows.

The education of the district's English learners -- about half the enrollment -- is considered key in raising the district's academic achievement. But other issues also are arising in the diverse school system of 16,000 kindergarten through eighth-graders. Test scores have improved over the past five years, but, on average, students still fall considerably below the national average in reading at the end of eighth grade.

Caffrey is pushing conversion to kindergarten through eighth-grade schools, starting with Thurgood Marshall School, a
north Oxnard campus scheduled to open next fall. He also spearheaded an instrumental music program that started as a
pilot at five schools this year. And he strongly endorses a computerized program the district is using to follow student
performance through their school years.

Focus on language, fine arts

Lopez said that as a two-term board member, he would keep the school district focused on student achievement by insisting that administrators stay glued to the task. He wants to focus particularly on language and the fine arts.

"We've made some improvements in math, but not nearly that much in language arts," he said. "I'm going to continue asking the tough question of why we can't get this done. For every year we are not making those goals, there goes another generation of kids from our (seventh and eighth-grade) schools into our high schools that have not been fully prepared."

Sterling, a 13-year veteran of the school board and a retired district teacher, called for less pressure on educators along with fewer marching orders from the state Legislature.

"I'm a firm believer that schools should be run in their community. ... The brains to run the schools are here in the community."

She said educators are overloaded.

"I think to improve student achievement we have to take part of the stress off administrators and teachers and all of our school employees so they can work without having to go home at the end of the day or at midnight and say, 'I'm not finished, I haven't finished my job.' "

Barba said she would push better communication between teachers and district officials, try to improve employee morale and invest money in programs for children. The former kindergarten teacher said she wants to know why more money was not cut from the district office instead of schools to balance this year's budget.

More time to teach

MacArthur said teachers need more time to teach, arguing that they are being pulled out of the classroom too much for training and conferences. "The education of the children is getting lost," he said.

He also called for holding board meetings in the afternoon or early evening so they don't drag late into the evening, improving the sound on television broadcasts of the meeting, and making sure administrators are in the classrooms seeing that California's objectives for education are being taught.

"I would like to bring the board a sense of common sense. Just because it's new doesn't mean it's good."

He questioned the board's decision to spend $100,000 to start the new music program. That money could have gone toward classroom aides to help improve students' reading and math skills, he said.

District officials say $100,000 would have paid for about 20 classroom aides working two hours a day. On the other hand, research shows that music instruction boosts children's skills in a wide variety of subjects, including math.

O'Leary would improve schools by phasing out the district's multitrack, year-round calendar and by making sure students are admitted into classes for gifted students regardless of their knowledge of English. "There are very intelligent students who speak other languages," said O'Leary, who has three sons in the district.

Calendar revised decades ago

The school district began converting to a year-round, staggered calendar decades ago to house the enrollment in one of the fastest-growing areas in the state. But O'Leary said there is no evidence that it provides any economic benefit. He also would like to see board meetings translated for Spanish speakers.

This year's campaign comes at a time when labor relations between teachers and the board are at impasse, a common event in the school district. Teachers rejected a labor contract in September, and a new mediation effort failed last week. The candidates called for improved communication, changing the personalities at the negotiating table and fostering more
openness and respect in the talks.

The teachers' union endorsed Barba, Caffrey and Lopez in the race. Barba was endorsed by the United Food & Commercial Workers Union and O'Leary by the United Farm Workers.

According to campaign finance statements filed earlier this month, O'Leary raised the most in contributions. He had $2,280 in contributions to Barba's $1,138. Caffrey, MacArthur and Sterling were not required to list their contributions because they filed statements saying they had spent less than $1,000 in the race.

County elections officials said Lopez did not file a campaign statement.