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Seattle Pledges To Improve Services for L.E.P. Students

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The Seattle school district has settled two related lawsuits that claimed it was not providing equal educational opportunities for students whose native language is not English.

The settlement, announced late last month, averted a trial in one of the cases that was scheduled to begin this week in state court.

In the agreement, the district promises to strengthen a number of services for students with limited English proficiency. The district agreed, among other steps, to improve the identification of such students, train and hire more teachers to serve them, and improve communication with their families.

Seattle's L.E.P. students speak more than 75 languages and make up about 14 percent of the district's enrollment of 46,000.

Evergreen Legal Services, a nonprofit legal-advocacy group, filed a class action in 1992 on behalf of all such students in the district. The suit was subsequently split into two cases--one in state court, the other in federal court.

In a statement released by the district and Evergreen, the district emphasized that it admitted no wrongdoing in serving its L.E.P. students. The district has "reinforced its commitment" to providing services, the statement said.

Neither district officials nor lawyers from Evergreen would comment on the agreement last week.

A superior-court judge has granted provisional approval to the agreement, which covers both cases. A hearing for final court approval is scheduled for June 16.

In the meantime, copies of the agreement are to be posted in the schools and distributed to parents of L.E.P. students and to community groups that serve them.

Hopes for Cooperation

The three-year agreement is scheduled to take effect July 1. It contains a provision that allows the district to renegotiate if the number of limited-English-proficient students changes or if the state alters its laws regarding those students.

Some observers said the settlement was a step in the right direction, though they emphasized that how it is implemented will determine its success.

"I think this will at least get both sides cooperating to come up with more efficiency and cost-effectiveness in providing bilingual programs," said Daniel H. Smith, a member of the board of directors of the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project, a Seattle-based advocacy group.

One of the key charges in the original lawsuit was that the district violated state law by not providing bilingual education. The law calls for students to be taught partially in their native languages "where practicable."

The agreement includes provisions that might allow for such instruction, but does not promise bilingual education to all L.E.P. students.

District officials have long maintained that whatever deficiencies exist in their programs for a burgeoning population of L.E.P. students stem from inadequate state funding.

Shortly after Evergreen Legal Services filed its suit, the district lodged its own complaint against the state. The agreement calls for the plaintiffs to help the district argue its case in court. The case is scheduled for trial in January.

Many portions of the agreement cite the need for enough money to carry out program improvements.

Last year, the state delayed approval of Seattle's bilingual-education funds and asked the district to better its L.E.P. student programs. (See Education Week, 7/14/94.)

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