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Language Minorities Seek Place in Desegregation Case

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Advocates for Hispanic and Asian-American students have moved to intervene in a school-desegregation case in San Francisco because, they claim, the remedies that have been proposed to the court ignore and may harm the interests of language minorities.

The national advocacy group seeking to intervene does not take issue with the basic findings of the federal court in the school district's longstanding desegregation case, but it argues that Hispanics and Asians should have a voice in developing any new student-assignment plan for the city's schools.

In a motion filed last month in U.S. District Court, lawyers from the group Multicultural Education, Training, and Advocacy, or META, contend that Hispanic students "have not made any academic gains'' after a decade under a consent decree agreed on by the district and the black plaintiffs in the case, despite the decree's call for educational improvement as well as racial balance.

Asian students, the motion argues, have been stereotyped as high achievers and thus given little or no consideration by the parties and court-appointed experts involved in developing new remediation efforts.

Balancing Needs

The motion, expected to be heard by the court on March 4, raises issues that have been vexing many other urban districts as they seek to keep schools racially balanced while dealing with growing populations of language-minority students.

In a suit filed in December against the Seattle school district, for example, lawyers for Hispanic and Asian students accused the district of denying needed services to limited-English-proficient students as it implements a "controlled choice'' student-assignment plan designed to integrate schools without mandatory busing.

"I would not want to blame any of the problems those L.E.P. kids are having in those districts on those desegregation plans,'' Peter D. Roos, a lawyer and a co-director of META who is representing Hispanic and Asian students in the Seattle and San Francisco cases, said in an interview. "There are a number of examples of districts in which desegregation and bilingual education have operated effectively side by side.''

But the difficulties L.E.P. students have encountered in Seattle and San Francisco, he added, appear to have been "somewhat exacerbated'' by the districts' desegregation remedies. The cases illustrate how student-assignment plans that are not sensitive to the needs of language-minority students "almost invariably are going to have problems,'' Mr. Roos said.

Little Latino Progress

META's request to intervene in the San Francisco case comes less than two years after the district was criticized by a coalition of African-American groups for placing more than 750 black students in bilingual-education classes for the sake of integration. Following reports of that practice in a local newspaper, the district had given black parents the option of removing their children from the classes. (See Education Week, June 12, 1991.)

A 1983 consent decree that was in force then, and remains in effect, required that every school in the district enroll at least four racial or ethnic groups and that, with limited exceptions, no racial or ethnic group account for more than 45 percent of any school's enrollment.

Along with ending racial and ethnic isolation, the consent decree had the goal of improving schools to bring about academic equity.

Last summer, a panel of experts appointed by the federal court issued a report concluding that the district had accomplished its goal of desegregation under the decree but had fallen far short in its efforts to bring about educational improvement.

The lawyers from META, which frequently represents immigrant students, asserted in filing their motion last month that contents of the experts' report "startled'' their clients in the case, who include Chinese and Latino students, their parents, and the leadership of such organizations as the Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, the Latin American Teachers Association, and Chinese for Affirmative Action.

Especially disturbing, the META lawyers said, were the report's findings of "extremely poor academic achievement'' among Latino students, its documentation of the costs of implementing the decree, and its failure to examine the needs and status of L.E.P. students and low-achieving Asian students, many of whom are newly arrived in the United States and from low-income families.

Demographic Shift

The META lawyers also pointed out in their motion that San Francisco has undergone profound demographic changes since 1978, when the initial desegregation suit was filed by the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

At that time, black students made up 24 percent of the district's enrollment. Since then, the META lawyers said, blacks' share of enrollment has dropped to 18 percent, while Chinese enrollment has climbed to more than 24 percent and Latino enrollment to almost 20 percent.

During the 1991-92 school year, only 44 percent of 1st and 2nd graders reported that their home language was English, according to META.

The request to intervene maintains that the 1983 consent decree's 45 percent cap on the enrollment of any ethnic group in a given school has resulted in L.E.P. students' being denied access to bilingual programs.

Among its other complaints, the intervention request accuses the district of taking too long to process L.E.P. students' applications for enrollment; failing to communicate with the parents of L.E.P. students in a language they understand; providing too few bilingual teachers and books; having "scattered and fragmented'' bilingual programs; and failing to provide language-appropriate services for L.E.P. students in the district's alternative programs.

In filing the motion, META has no desire to be viewed as adversarial to the black plaintiffs, Mr. Roos stressed, and may even be able to help their case.

"There are some common needs, and some new voices might be helpful for everyone,'' Mr. Roos said.

The school district's lawyer, Aubrey B. McCutcheon Jr., said he did not know yet whether the advocates for Hispanic and Asian students have any grounds to intervene in the case, but he said the district was "ready to cooperate'' with anyone who can suggest ways for it to improve in its compliance with the consent decree.

Seattle Suit

Similar issues were raised in the suit that Evergreen Legal Services, a nonprofit legal-advocacy group, filed against the Seattle schools on behalf of the district's limited-English-proficient students.

Along with accusing the district of an overall failure to provide adequate bilingual instruction and assistance to its 5,000 L.E.P. students, the suit charges that the district has structured its controlled-choice plan in a way that severely limits the choices of language minorities.

Because not all of Seattle's schools offer adequate bilingual programs, the suit argues, L.E.P. students have been given a choice of either attending "bilingual-center schools,'' which may be some distance from their homes, or of waiving their right to transitional-bilingual-education programs as a condition for being allowed to attend other specialty schools or schools in their neighborhoods.

The Seattle district has denied most of the allegations contained in the suit and filed its own claim against the State of Washington in U.S. District Court, asserting that any deficiencies in its bilingual program are a result of inadequate state funding. (See Education Week, Jan. 13, 1993.)

'Aim a Mile High'

National observers, meanwhile, say the differing needs of black and language-minority students can be reconciled, though population shifts may complicate the task.

"There is no reason you can't both integrate and have bilingual education,'' Norma V. Cantu, a regional counsel for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, said in an interview. "There is no need for school districts to meet the needs of some kids but not all.''

Ms. Cantu cited the case of the Denver school system, where immigrant parents have joined in a desegregation case and the district operates under two court orders, one dealing with desegregation and the other with bilingual education.

Many urban districts have continued, however, to have difficulty addressing both concerns as their student populations have become far less white and far more Hispanic and Asian.

James A. Connelly, the superintendent of Bridgeport, Conn., schools and a co-chairman of the New England Superintendents Leadership Council, an organization of 120 school superintendents seeking to improve the education of language minorities, underscored the demographic issues.

"A lot of desegregation plans are really numbers plans,'' he said, "and have ignored that an increasing minority of students are Latino and come with unique language needs.''

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