Equity & Diversity

The Justice and Ed. Departments and ELLs’ Civil Rights

By Mary Ann Zehr — August 03, 2010 2 min read
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In an article published last Friday at edweek.org, I reported that some English-language learners in four urban school districts didn’t get the services to learn English they are entitled to under federal law.

The article contains recent statements from the U.S. Departments of Justice and Education about schools’ obligations to give ELLs special help to learn English until they are proficient in the language.

In reporting for a couple of blog posts recently and for this article, I learned that the Justice Department is stepping up enforcement of civil rights laws in schools. Its effort includes the opening of investigations concerning English-language learners.

Since President Obama took office in January 2009, the Justice Department has opened 15 investigations of services for ELLs in schools, according to Xochitl Hinojosa, a spokeswoman for that department. Hinojosa said she couldn’t name the districts where those investigations are taking place while the investigations are going on. So far I have a confirmation only from Boston Public Schools that one of the investigations is happening in that school system.

But the Justice Department hasn’t examined ELL services only in well-known urban school districts. See the department’s Web site for an April 10 agreement between the department and Colorado’s Adams 12 Five Star Schools (first document posted) that resulted from a review of ELL services there. The agreement says that the district, located in Thornton, Colo., will ensure that all English-language learners who have not opted out of the program for such students will receive at least one class period of English-language-development or English-as-a-second-language lessons for a minimum of four days per week. (Starting with the 2011-12 school year the district agreed to provide at least one class period of special help each day). The agreement says ELLs will also receive daily academic content classes taught by teachers using “sheltered instruction,” which means modified English and other techniques designed to reach ELLs. (By the 2011-12 school year, the district will ensure sheltered instruction is available to ELLs in math, science, and social studies.)

The district’s website says that about 6,100 of its 42,100 students are ELLs.

I’m thinking that the agreement could be a guide for other school districts who seek insight on what steps can be taken to ensure ELLs are getting full access to the core curriculum.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Learning the Language blog.