After months of persistent lobbying, two south Orange County schools Thursday became the first in the state to win waivers that allow them to maintain unusual programs that teach children both Spanish and English.
The state Department of Education granted Las Palmas Elementary in Capistrano Unified and Gates Elementary in Saddleback Unified "alternative" school status, freeing them from the provisions of the newly enacted Proposition 227, which virtually bans bilingual education.
"This is great news," Capistrano Unified Supt. James Fleming said. "This is a program that is worthwhile and this is a program that works."
Each of the programs, called "two-way language immersion" programs, teaches both Spanish and English to children of various language backgrounds. At Las Palmas, about half of the 720 enrolled students have been participating in the program. The enrollment figures are similar at Gates.
State education officials said the waiver requests were approved because the schools demonstrated success and strong community support. During a visit to Orange County last week, state Supt. of Public Instruction Delaine Eastin watched as students from both schools showed her how the programs work and listened to pleas from more than 300 parents asking to keep the programs.
In both cases, the districts outlined high standards for students in the programs, as well as ongoing ways of evaluating the programs and seeing whether the students succeed, said state education spokesman Doug Stone. "This is a case of local parent control and educational programs that are best for their children."
The waivers are for two years; after that, the state will reevaluate the programs.
Creators of Proposition 227 denounced the developments, calling the move a clear violation of the new law.
"It is clear from the language and the intent of 227 that waivers shall only be sought [by individual parents] and we do not believe Delaine Eastin holds the authority to grant such a waiver on a blanket basis," said Sheri Annis, spokeswoman for the English for the Children campaign. "We believe it is illegal to use the alternative school provision to circumvent the law of Proposition 227."
Saddleback Unified Supt. Peter Hartman said that seeking the "alternative" status for Gates was strictly within education codes and that his district is not trying to disobey the law.
"It's important that people understand that this is not a bilingual program, this is a foreign language program that is entirely voluntary," Hartman said.
Under Proposition 227, non-English-speaking students must begin the school year in classes taught mainly in English. Parents who want their children to be taught in their primary language can file for a waiver after the first 30 days of school. Schools then work to try to accommodate such requests.
State education officials are considering waiver applications from nine other districts with dual-language programs, including Santa Monica.