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Shake-Up Leaves Bitter Taste For Parents Of Kids Learning English

Myriam Marquez

December 22, 2002
Copyright © 2002 ORLANDO SENTINEL. All rights reserved. 

Weeks before the November elections, the state found problems in the way some Orange County schools teach students who are learning English for the first time and insisted that the district centralize its oversight of those programs. Once again, it seemed the district was thumbing its nose at a decade-old federal order designed to ensure kids get comprehensible instruction -- no ifs, ands or buts.

"What does Jeb Bush, the Education Governor, plan to do about the district's three failed audits in little more than two years?" I asked in an Oct. 1 column.

A few days later, Bush assured me he was taking the issue seriously and that the school district got the message, too. The concerns of parents, he said, wouldn't be ignored. That's what the so-called META agreement that settled the federal lawsuit demands, too.

So how did the state show it would take parents' concerns seriously?

It fired one of its best advocates for Florida's growing number of children who are learning English, a group that's predominantly poor and whose parents often feel alienated from a bureaucratic maze of programs and double-talking education-speak at the local level.

It turned on a man who has spent the past 10 years helping empower parents and prodding school districts throughout the state to meet their obligations so that a child not yet fluent in English has the same rights and is given the same opportunities as all other students. That's not only constitutionally required -- it's pedagogically sound.

Bernardo Garcia was among 65 Department of Education staffers who were terminated this month in one fell swoop shortly after Jim Horne took over the agency. Garcia, 61, supervised about 50 people in an office that oversaw emergency immigrant aid, bilingual education, ESOL programs and school safety. Over the years, I've seen Garcia make presentations to parents, educators and business people, and each time people walked away praising him. He earned high marks from his bosses for his advocacy and no-nonsense approach.

A Horne spokesman told me that Garcia's firing should not be construed as the state abdicating its oversight role over the district's use of millions of dollars in federal funds that are supposed to help kids learn English or over the requirements of the federal settlement.

But the way this thing came down leaves plenty of reason to doubt the state's true intentions.

On Dec. 6, Garcia was fired -- in the middle of a meeting with the head lawyer for the META consent decree, Peter Roos, who had traveled from his California offices to Tallahassee to discuss the Orange County mess and other issues. Evelyn Rivera, the Parent Leadership Council president, said that Garcia was called out shortly after the meeting began. Another DOE official ended the meeting abruptly. So much for listening to parents' concerns.

Ever since, parents from the Haitian community in Miami-Dade County, Hispanic communities throughout Central Florida and national education advocacy groups who know Garcia's good work have been questioning the state's motives. Their trust has been shattered.

I'm not so naïve as to ignore that Rivera is a Democratic activist in Orlando, and that Bush or his people may have thought that the latest DOE audit's timing was bad for his re-election. Such a scenario is an assault on Garcia's good character. He focused his work on giving students the tools to succeed, period.

Garcia never used his position to agitate politically. In fact, he's a registered Republican and spoke well of Bush's attempts to make educators accountable.

State officials say they can't comment on "personnel matters." So parents and educators are left to wonder what caused the state to fire not only Garcia, one of the highest-ranking Hispanics at the DOE, but also to terminate the DOE's highest-ranking Haitian-American and other minorities in key positions.

"Decent people have been personally maligned and professionally damaged," Joan First, executive director of the National Coalition for Students, said in a letter to Horne,

The shake-up left a bitter taste for many parents, and it could well backfire into a lawsuit against the state -- all because it reeks of a political power play.

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