Four urban districts—in Boston; Buffalo, N.Y.; Portland, Ore.; and Seattle—did not provide special help to learn English to all students entitled to it under federal law, according to reviews of those school systems over the past two years.
The reviews, some of which were conducted by state officials and others by private, independent groups, come as the Obama administration steps up enforcement of civil rights laws in schools. But directors of programs for English-language learners in those four districts, who say they are trying to fix the problem, maintain that part of the issue is confusion over how to apply federal civil rights laws to the education of such students. For example, they’ve had questions about whether they must give extra help to ELLs whose parents choose to send them to neighborhood schools that don’t offer services for such children, and they aren’t always sure when it’s appropriate to move students out of special programs.
The U.S. Department of Justice and Department of Education are expected to bring some clarity to the challenge of upholding the civil rights of ELLs as they undertake investigations of ELL programs in districts around the country. The Justice Department has opened 15 such investigations since President Barack Obama took office in January 2009, according to Xochitl Hinojosa, a spokeswoman for the federal agency. Boston is one of them. In March, the Education Department announced that it, too, was increasing enforcement of civil rights laws in schools through its office for civil rights, which has since started investigations of ELL services in Los Angeles and Boston.
Spelling It Out
In a written statement earlier this month, Thomas E. Perez, the assistant attorney general for the civil rights division of the Justice Department, laid out some guidance for districts. “All English-language-learner students have the right to appropriate language-support services until they achieve English proficiency,” he says, “and when educational agencies terminate such services prematurely, they deny these students the equal educational opportunity that federal law guarantees them.”
Education Department officials wrote something similar in an e-mail this week to Education Week: “Once students have been placed in an alternative language program, they must be provided with services until they are proficient enough in English to participate meaningfully in the regular educational program.” One determining factor for whether a student is ready to quit a special language program, they said, would be if he or she could participate in all aspects of a school’s curriculum without the use of simplified English materials.
In May 2009, when Eileen De Los Reyes became the assistant superintendent for English-language learners for the Boston district, she was charged with addressing the lack of services to some ELLs that were highlighted in a 2008 state review of the school system’s programs. It found that over four years, about 4,000 English-learners were reported to have opted out of special programs and had not received special help to learn English. Nearly 16,000 of the district’s 56,000 students are ELLs. The state review also said educators told parents to opt out if programs were full or if they chose to send their child to a school that didn’t have an ELL program. In 2009, a report by the Mauricio Gastón Institute for Latino Community Development and Public Policy at the University of Massachusetts Boston, found that the district wasn’t properly assessing and identifying many students as ELLs.
To address the misidentification problem, Ms. De Los Reyes said, the district has ensured that screening to determine if students need language support takes place at one location, where bilingual staff members are on hand to explain program options to parents. Also, because the district had been assessing students in speaking and listening—but not in reading and writing—during the screening, the federal agencies required the school system to retest many students. The retesting turned up an additional 4,269 eligible students. They’ll start getting that special help this coming school year, Ms. De Los Reyes said.
Asked if she thought federal law spells out clearly a district’s obligation to serve ELLs, Ms. De Los Reyes said that “the concept of opting out has been confusing.” The state found many English-learners were not receiving services because district officials didn’t think they were obliged to provide them if parents chose to send their children to a school without an ELL program, she said. Only 56 of Boston’s 135 schools have formal programs for such students.
But the federal Justice and Education departments have made it clear that the school system must provide language support even if English-learners go to schools without formal programs, Ms. De Los Reyes said. “This is the profound change in the district. If you choose to go to the neighborhood school, that school will have to provide services,” she said. The district has embarked on a massive effort to train regular classroom teachers in those schools in strategies to work with ELLs, she said.
Officials for the Justice and Education departments said this week that when parents decline participation in an alternative language program for their children, districts still have a responsibility to meet students’ language needs. “Districts can meet this obligation in a variety of ways (e.g. adequate training to classroom teachers on second-language acquisition; monitoring the educational progress of the student),” an Education Department e-mail said.
Whittling the Numbers
Across the country, in Seattle, a 2008 review by the Washington-based Council of the Great City Schools found that a whopping 43 percent of English-language learners in that district hadn’t gotten the special help they needed to learn English during the 2006-07 school year.
Gabriela Uro, the manager of ELL policy and research for the council, said that figure came from the Seattle district’s database, but it wasn’t clear if the database had been well-maintained. For example, she said, it may not have reflected the fact that some ELLs had been redesignated as fluent in English and no longer needed services.
The district has since whittled down the proportion of entitled ELLs not getting services to 14 percent and counts all those students as having opted out of services. About 5,700 of the district’s 46,200 students are ELLs.
Like Boston, the Seattle district has some schools that don’t offer formal English-learner programs, but unlike Boston, Seattle doesn’t have a plan to offer language support in “nonprogram” schools. “With limited funding, we cannot provide ELL services in all 97 schools,” said Veronica Gallardo, the director of English-learner programs for Seattle. She added that all of Seattle’s middle and high schools offer formal programs. At the elementary level, five schools in each of four regions have such programs, so parents should be able to find a school with one in their locale, she explained.
Before Ms. Gallardo became the director of ELL programs in July 2008, she said, the process for identifying ELLs didn’t occur at the district’s central enrollment center, and thus many ended up in general education without any language support. She said a home-language survey that asked parents if their child’s first language was a tongue other than English—which would have prompted the district to assess that child’s English skills—wasn’t used consistently by the enrollment center.
Under Ms. Gallardo’s direction, the process of identification was moved to the main enrollment center, and bilingual staff members are now on hand there who can describe program options to parents.
A state review last year found the Portland district was not giving all ELLs special help, though it didn’t cite a statistic for those who didn’t get services. A 2010 review by the Council of the Great City Schools found that at least 100 ELLs out of about 3,100 in the Buffalo system didn’t receive any language support for most of the 2008-09 school year.
In Portland’s case, Oregon officials wanted to see on paper that each ELL was receiving a certain number of minutes of English-language-development instruction daily, said Diana G. Fernandez, the director of ELL programs for the district. About 4,700 of the district’s 46,000 students are ELLs. State officials asked the district to ensure that English-language development was included on schools’ master schedules, she said. Portland has submitted a plan to improve various aspects of ELL services to the state, and it will be implemented this coming school year, Ms. Fernandez said.
In Buffalo, Tamara O. Alsace, the director of multilingual education for the district, said she’s not sure how the Council of Great City Schools came up with the 100 ELLs without services figure. But she acknowledged that the district hasn’t always provided staff members in schools to give all English-learners the services to which they are entitled, particularly if a school receives an unexpected influx of immigrants.
“I could never say that every single student receives every period of ESL [English as a second language] that they are supposed to every day,” she said. Ten percent of Buffalo’s 35,000 students are ELLs.
The Buffalo district doesn’t report that ELLs have opted out of receiving language support because New York state law doesn’t permit opt outs, though parents can choose ESL, which offers instruction in English, over bilingual education, which includes instruction in a student’s native language. In New York, ELLs must take at least one English-as-a-second-language class until they pass the state’s English-language-proficiency test.
A Broader Scope
Concerns about whether ELLs are receiving the services to which they’re entitled have arisen in states as well as districts.
For example, in a report released last year, the Gastón Institute cited state data showing only 83 percent of ELLs in Massachusetts were enrolled in language-acquisition programs in 2009.
Also, one way the Justice Department has stepped up civil rights enforcement, according to Ms. Hinojosa, the Justice Department spokeswoman, is to investigate if states as well as individual districts are complying with the Equal Educational Opportunities Act of 1974. That federal law says schools must take action to overcome language barriers that hinder ELLs from having equal access to education.
The Justice Department announced this month that the Illinois board of education has adopted new administrative rules to address the federal agency’s concern that Illinois schools aren’t giving ELLs special help to learn English until they reach proficiency in the language. The state requires districts to provide transitional bilingual education for ELLs only for three years, though it doesn’t prevent districts from keeping students in programs after that.
Darren Reisberg, the general counsel for the state board, said Illinois officials didn’t agree with federal officials that school districts were terminating services for ELLs prematurely and thus violating federal law. Nevertheless, the state board followed the Justice Department’s recommendation to adopt rules that require districts to show how they are serving ELLs after three years in special programs, he said.
The purpose of the new rules, Mr. Reisberg said, is to say: “Hey, districts, just remember all students need to receive a meaningful educational experience, and you have to show us in a plan how you are doing that.”
He said the Illinois board has asked the Justice Department for guidance on what a meaningful educational experience looks like for ELLs after three years of special help, but the federal government hasn’t yet delivered it. “At this point,” he said, “we’re shooting in the dark.”
A version of this article appeared in the August 11, 2010 edition of Education Week