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District to Overhaul English Instruction

Education: Responding to federal probe, Newport-Mesa agrees to revamp its methods.


Newport Beach and Costa Mesa schools have agreed to revamp the way they teach students who are not fluent in English after a federal civil rights investigation found that a middle school was providing an inadequate education for those children.

Under the Oct. 24 agreement, the Newport-Mesa Unified School District promises to make major fixes by next summer or risk losing federal funding. Among the changes: creating a master plan to teach the 6,000 youngsters--30% of the district's enrollment--who are not fluent in English, training teachers better and hiring a translator so Spanish-speaking parents can understand board meetings.

A separate agreement with the California Department of Education, signed in September, requires the district to create English-language advisory committees at every school and allow those committees to review budgets to make sure money for English learners is spent properly.

The state and federal governments got involved after a parent at TeWinkle Middle School in Costa Mesa, Mirna Burciaga, filed complaints against the district last November.

Among the findings of investigators from the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights:

* The school district did a spotty job of assessing whether children were fluent in English, and as a result, students were not placed in appropriate programs.

* The district lacked clear standards for placing Spanish-speaking students in the regular educational program, which meant that many non-English-speaking students were dropped into regular classes without proper support.

* District officials did not hire enough teachers qualified to work with children who struggled with English, and many non-fluent students were put in classes with teachers who lacked the skills to help them.

* The district should provide Spanish translations at school board meetings.

District officials had no quarrels with the findings or the new requirements.

"It's been a good thing for us," said Jaime Castellanos, the district's director of secondary education. "It has raised our awareness of what we need to do. We need to show proof that we're dealing with these issues."

Castellanos said the district should have had a plan in place already, but that no one in the district had taken responsibility for creating or monitoring one. "We just didn't have a focused plan," he said. "No one owned the programs . . . we kind of had no direction for it."

Parents hailed the changes, but said they are upset it took a federal investigation to make the district do what is right for their children.

TeWinkle School Failing to Meet Students' Needs

The mother who filed the complaint a year ago, a native of El Salvador, said her children speak English and were doing fine. But in her role as president of the parents' group Madres Costa Mesa, Burciaga said mothers were constantly coming to her with worries about how their children were being treated at TeWinkle. Yet two years of complaints to the district fell on deaf ears, she said.

"I have an accent problem when I talk," Burciaga said. "But that doesn't mean I have an accent problem when I think . . . This is just the beginning."

Maria Socorro Heredia had complained to Burciaga that her seventh-grade son went two months without being given homework, and that he could not understand what was going on in his regular-curriculum classes because his English was poor and teachers talked too fast.

On the other hand, Ana Gonzalez was outraged because her eighth-grade daughter, Annie, was kept out of science and math and instead was placed in four consecutive periods of English language development--even though she speaks English well.

"I was in a class with people who came from Mexico," said Annie Gonzalez, who was born and reared in Costa Mesa and is now a freshman at Estancia High School. "The work I was supposed to do was way too easy, so I just helped the teacher."

Annie said she complained several times to her counselor and school officials, asking to be able to take science and math but was told that her schedule was set. Months later, she was finally moved, but by then she was hopelessly behind, she said.

As president of the group, Burciaga complained to the principal and district officials about these and other issues. Dissatisfied with their response, she filed complaints with the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights and the State Department of Education.

Castellanos said school officials met several times with Burciaga over issues at TeWinkle and that officials had tried to address her complaints. He said her concerns were often about discipline issues and did not seem focused on schoolwide programs for English-language learners. But when the federal agency got involved, its investigators found that such complaints were not isolated cases, but that TeWinkle was systematically failing to meet the needs of non-English-speaking students.

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