Original URL:  http://www.bayarea.com/mld/bayarea/news/4327959.htm

Pittsburg schools pursue language reforms
Critics argue efforts to educate non-English speakers are inadequate
By Sarah Krupp

PITTSBURG - When California passed a law curbing bilingual education, Pittsburg schools responded by dropping programs for students learning English. The new classroom rule was instruction in English only.

When a group of Latino parents responded by accusing the Pittsburg Unified School District of ignoring their children's needs and misinterpreting the law, authorities stepped in.

Now, four years after the state and federal departments of education declared that Pittsburg was failing its students learning English as a second language, reforms finally have trickled down to the schools.

As now required by law, Pittsburg school employees test students to gauge their English proficiency. Students are grouped with teachers with appropriate certifications. Children now are in required classes designed to teach the skills they need to gain full fluency in English, such as vocabulary, grammar, colloquialism and reading comprehension.

"It has been painfully slow, but what I am pleased with is that we are now talking about what's happening in the classroom on a daily basis," said schools trustee Ruben Rosalez.

Rosalez is a leader of the Comité Pro Educación, the parent group that spurred the state and federal investigations in 1999. Two years ago, he became a school board member.

Still he added: "It shouldn't have taken this long. We have a lot of catching up to do."

Karen Mazza was appointed to lead the compliance effort two years ago, just as state and federal authorities were beginning to crack down on the district. She was an elementary school vice principal.

Since she started, one of the most visible changes is that parents now are being offered the choice of putting their children in a bilingual class. Although it would seem that the passage of Proposition 227 outlawed such classes, schools with non-English speaking students are actually required to give parents bilingual alternatives.

This year, Foothill Elementary School established a kindergarten and first-grade class in which students learn primarily in Spanish.

Next year, Mazza plans to expand the options to parents and start a kindergarten class of half English- and half Spanish-speaking students. Dual immersion, as it is called, aims to make all students in the program fully bilingual. The students would begin learning mostly in Spanish and make transitions until they are learning an equal amount in both languages.

As the Pittsburg district creates new services, its educators also are trying to learn from school districts that have successful plans to cope with the state's laws on bilingual education. Mazza will visit Meadow Homes Elementary School in Concord so she can emulate elements of that school's successful dual immersion program.

Despite the progress Pittsburg schools have made recently, critics contend the school district has dragged its feet.

Deadlines to come into complete compliance have been delayed twice. In July, the state Department of Education and the federal Office for Civil Rights agreed to extend the district's deadlines through June 2003, two years after the original agreement called for complete compliance.

In August, Carlos Muñoz, chairman for the Comité Pro Educación, sent a harsh letter to the federal and state officials. In it, he accused the agencies of helping the district break the law by delaying deadlines. He asked that the state take a stronger stance and consider further sanctions against the district.

In the past two years, the state has withheld some monthly payments to the district to coax it into compliance. About $115,000 still has not been released from last year, but school officials said they are confident the district will get the funds. This year, the state will delay payments until the district meets its deadlines.

The district is also under similar, but separate reviews for its services to special education students and its education of black students. In both cases, the district has agreed to come into compliance with state and federal laws or face sanctions.

Mazza said that since she has been in the program, the district has worked diligently, but in some cases the amount of time was too short to achieve huge improvements.

The district still must find a way to assess the education level of students learning English whose native language is not Spanish. Last spring, the district counted 474 limited-English students fluent in a language other than Spanish. The majority of these students speak Tagalog, Vietnamese, Hindi, Punjabi or Laotian.

Of the approximately 9,660 students in Pittsburg schools, 2,657 were identified as Spanish speakers with limited English skills.

To meet upcoming deadlines, the district also must submit proof that its schools are training teachers how to instruct students learning English. Mazza said that the district is fine tuning a catch-up plan for students who are below grade level and still learning English, which includes after-school sessions and special classes within the school day.

The biggest challenge that remains, Mazza said, is finding qualified teachers. Most newly hired teachers now must agree to acquire, in two years, a special certification known as the Crosscultural, Language and Academic Development.

Most teachers with full credentials acquired the certification as one of their requirements. But Pittsburg has many teachers working on emergency credentials.

Mazza said that some veteran teachers who feel they don't need the special certification may have to be forced to gain one through a district-mandated policy.

"I have done what I can do in my power, but we still have a long way to go, " Mazza said.
Reach Sarah Krupp at 925-779-7166 or skrupp@cctimes.com.


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