Districts deny that their language aid lags

Published: Friday, Jan. 25, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 1B
Last Modified: Sunday, Jan. 27, 2013 - 2:45 pm

Wheatland High School sits along a country road bordered by fields, a pumpkin farm and a cemetery. Its 710 ninth- through 12th-grade students are a mix of local teenagers and military kids from nearby Beale Air Force Base.

There isn't usually much news coming out of the Yuba County school.

That changed Wednesday when a report was released that listed the Wheatland Union High School District as the California district with the highest percentage of English learners – 85 percent – not receiving required language classes.

The district is made up of the high school and a community day school on the high school campus.

The report, issued by the American Civil Liberties Union of California and the Asian Pacific American Legal Center, lists 251 state school districts that failed to offer English learner classes to all students needing them in the 2010-11 school year, the most recent year that data is available.

School district submit annual reports to the California Department of Education.

Two other local districts – Twin Rivers Unified School District in Sacramento and Rescue Union Elementary School District in El Dorado County – joined Wheatland on the list.

Officials from all three districts seemed to be caught off-guard by the news.

Wheatland Principal/Superintendent Vic Ramos said he didn't know why school officials reported they had only served four of 27 of their English learners in 2010-11. "We may have misreported it," he said.

He said that every student at the school speaks English and that only a few – 15 this school year – are categorized as English language learners.

"I'm very familiar with the challenges of having students who don't speak English," said Ramos, who previously was the principal at Rosemont High in Sacramento. "We don't have those challenges."

He said English learners are integrated into regular classes in which teachers differentiate instruction. "We monitor their progress," he said.

The principal acknowledges that the school had a number of problems when he arrived in 2009-10, including teachers without the appropriate credential to teach English learners. That has changed, he said. Now the district's teachers either have the credential or are on their way to earning it, he said.

He points to a 37-point increase in the district's Academic Performance Index score last year, increasing it to 784. Latino students, who make up a majority of the school's English learners, increased their collective API by 48 points, he said.

Twin Rivers, which has 8,852 English learners among it 28,000 students, did not offer services to 5 percent of that population – 407 students in 2010-11, according to state data.

District officials blame the high numbers on seven independent charter schools within Twin Rivers Unified, saying 362 of the 407 unserved students in their district attended those charters. One of the charter schools has since closed.

"Because they are independent charters, the district has no control over their instructional services," said a prepared statement from the district.

School boards must approve each charter, however, and have the power to decide whether to renew charters when they expire. Twin Rivers officials said they will take this into consideration when they renew the charters in June of 2017.

Rescue Union Elementary School District did not offer services to 30 percent – or 39 – of its English learners, according to the report.

Rescue Superintendent David Swart said the information is inaccurate and that the district provides services to 100 percent of its English language learners. He said Thursday that the information was put in the system incorrectly by district staff.

The district, which serves 4,065 students at seven elementary and middle schools, has a 907 API. Its English learners increased their score by 14 points to 764 in 2011-12.

"We are getting help to the kids who need it the most," he said.

The data reported by districts as part of an annual census shows that 20,318 English learners attending California schools in 2010-11 didn't receive any of the instructional services required, according to the California Department of Education's website.

The numbers for 2010-11 aren't unusual, said David Sapp, an attorney for the ACLU. "It's been an issue for decades."

The lack of services has a debilitating effect on English learners, said the civil liberties group in a letter to state Superintendent Tom Torlakson and State Board of Education President Michael Kirst sent Wednesday. They said the students that aren't provided services are most at risk of dropping out or struggling academically.

The ACLU and the legal center warned state education officials they could face a lawsuit if they do not address the problem immediately.

"There are so many districts violating the law and the state isn't taking any action," Sapp told The Bee.

Education Department officials turned down a request for an interview for this story, issuing a news release instead.

"Despite the enormous financial strains of recent years, California has made dramatic progress in seeing that all English learners receive appropriate instruction and services," said Karen Cadiero- Kaplan, director of the English Learner Support Division at the Education Department in the prepared statement.

"School districts – which are responsible for providing instruction to students and appropriate services to English learners – currently report that 98 percent of the state's 1.4 million English learners are receiving services."

The number is from the same 2010-11 data, according to state education officials.

Then some students "have not received services and that would be illegal," Sapp said, when told of the state's response. "That number should be zero."

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Read more articles by Diana Lambert

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