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Legal Settlement In Bilingual Case Hailed as Model

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The Lowell, Mass., public schools have set in motion a comprehensive effort to aid students whose native language is not English, including an unusual plan to seek out and assist those who have dropped out of school.

The plan, part of a desegregation settlement that was expected to receive final federal-court approval this week, is being hailed as one of the nation's broadest attempts to help compensate for harm allegedly caused by insufficient bilingual services.

It is the product of months of negotiations between school officials and Hispanic and Southeast Asian parents who filed a class action against the school system in 1987.

The suit, Hispanic Parents Advisory Council v. Kouloheras, charged that the district unconstitutionally segregated limited-English-proficient students and failed to provide them with "appropriate and effective educational services." Such "inferior" programs, it alleged, were partly responsible for a disproportionately high dropout rate among minority students.

The settlement calls for more counseling and support services for language-minority students and their parents and stepped-up recruitment and training of bilingual staff members.

It also requires that the students be guaranteed equal access to all instructional programs, and it expands multicultural and "two-way" bilingual programs that teach both immigrant and English-speaking students in two languages.

The U.S. District Court of Massachusetts initially approved the voluntary compliance plan last month and was expected to make it final at the close of the 30-day notice period that expires this week.

James Lyons, counsel for the National Association for Bilingual Education, praised the "total comprehensiveness of the agreement and the commitment to provide robust kinds of programs for language-minority children."

Observers say that its "dropout-recovery" plan is also unique.

"For the first time, a federal court is ordering that all the students of different racial and language backgrounds who dropped out during a period of great turmoil in Lowell have to be identified, located, encouraged to return to school, or provided appropriate alternative programs," said Camilo Perez, chief counsel for the plaintiffs.

"What makes it stand out," added Mr. Lyons, "is the outreach and the real remedy it provides for those that the system has failed."

Another important element of the plan, Mr. Perez said, is that it extends support services--such as guidance counseling and dropout prevention--"beyond the bilingual program" to students who enter mainstream classes.

Nationally, "the majority of language-minority kids are in fact in the mainstream," he said. "They are the ones who tend to be the least served and are clearly at risk." The Lowell plan, he added, "begins to point a direction in which the tide can be turned."

"By elevating the quality of minority education," said Richard P. Howe, mayor of Lowell and chairman of the school committee, "we hope to improve majority education, too, and minimize the friction that had existed among different groups."

Given the context of racial tension and strife that has existed in the city, said Roger Rice, another lawyer for the plaintiffs, "the most important thing is that it happened at all."

The suit was filed after the district, short on space to accommodate an influx of immigrant refugees, held bilingual classes in makeshift facilities that included portable classrooms, a local ymca and boys' club, a converted ladies' room, and a former boiler room.

According to school officials, Lowell has experienced a substantial surge in its minority population in recent years, largely as a result of a second wave of immigration by Southeast Asians.

The city--which, after Long Beach, Calif., has the second-largest community of Cambodian refugees in the country--counts an estimated 20,000 refugees among its 100,000 residents.

About 42 percent of Lowell's 13,600 students are members of minority groups; 25 percent are Cambodian, Laotian, or Vietnamese, and 15 percent are Hispanic.

The number of minority students jumped from 640 to 2,160 between 1975 and 1980, and to more than 4,000 in 1986. Between 1985 and 1988, bilingual-education enrollments tripled.

To cope with the enrollment surge, the district has embarked on a $131-million building program funded primarily by the state. It has also spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to rent space and portable classrooms, hire new staff members, and provide other services.

George D. Kouloheras, the only school-committee member who opposed the new settlement, has maintained that Lowell's plans for serving the minority students were adequate.

"We found space for them until such time as we got additional modular classrooms," he said. "Everything we did in Lowell was with the blessing of the [state] department of education."

To deter legal action by the state, however, the school committee in June of 1987 also adopted an enrollment policy that gives parents a voice in choosing their children's schools, "subject to the constraints of minority balance and space availability."

The plan appeased state officials but did not satisfy minority parents, who "pressed the suit for other issues dealing specifically with bilingual education," said George N. Tsapatsaris, a project director for the Lowell schools.

Besides continuing the revised enrollment policy, the city has agreed to spend $159,000 for several new staff positions, including "facilitators" for the various languages and bilingual staff members who will be assigned to serve as home/school liaisons, coordinate the parent-advisory council, and provide guidance services.

The plan also:

Aims to eliminate inequities in staffing, transportation, and facilities for language-minority students and entitles them to course offerings "equal and comparable" to those in the standard program, including computer instruction and vocational and special education.

Calls for reforms in special-education placement and services for bilingual students and prompter processing of special-education complaints.

Seeks to buttress parental involvement by expanding a parent advisory council that offers guidance on bilingual programs, and by forming a mayor's committee to meet monthly with parents and monitor the plan, which will also be overseen by the court.

Stipulates that student-discipline notices be prepared in the parents' home language and that bilingual staff and interpreters be present for consultations.

Calls for improved cultural and language programs; a new "multilingual, multicultural" school with a8two-way bilingual program; expansion of existing two-way programs; and a demonstration magnet school that teaches the Khmer, Spanish, and English languages and cultures.

In addition to providing dropout-prevention programs for language-minority students identified as "at risk," the plan requires the schools to contact all students who have dropped out since 1986. They are to be encouraged to return to school and offered special services.

Mr. Tsapatsaris said school officials already have begun reviewing strategies to locate dropouts and have begun recruiting personnel called for in the plan.

"We're not waiting for the document to be agreed to," he said. "We're looking to initiate every aspect as quickly as we can."

Mr. Perez, the plaintiffs' lawyer, said the Lowell plan could be drawn on as an example as similar lawsuits arise, particularly in states that have recently passed amendments making English the official language.

"In each of the communities where this has arisen, almost invariably bilingual education is one of the first issues tackled," he said.

A ruling is expected this month in a Berkeley, Calif., case that is testing the state's responsibility for limited-English-proficient students under its relaxed bilingual-education rules.

Alex Huertas, president of the Hispanic Parents Advisory Council in Lowell, said last week that he was "very confident" that the Lowell plan "is going to be a productive settlement." He added, however, that the city "has to explore other sources" of aid to implement the plan because both the city and state are strapped for funds.

Lowell's problems in coping with its burgeoning immigrant population have drawn the attention of the state's Congressional delegation and Secretary of Education Lauro F. Cavazos, who met with school officials and toured the city's classrooms last month.

To help raise funds for additional teachers and classrooms, the school system is seeking federal assistance under a variety of Education Department and Health and Human Services programs.

An aide to Senator Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts said the Congressional delegation was "looking at the problem and trying to find ways to address it," possibly by reviving a bill to aid Lowell that died last year.

One novel funding source being explored by the school district is impact aid, a program designed for areas where military and other federal installations have limited the tax base for school funding.

Mr. Tsapatsaris said district officials think Lowell should qualify for the federal program on the grounds that U.S. immigration policies allowing refugees to relocate have had "such an overwhelming impact in such a short time."

But one Congressional aide said the bid for impact aid was unlikely to succeed and that other federal programs--such as the emergency immigrant and transition refugee programs--would offer "more appropriate" sources of aid.

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