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District to Alter Its Approach to English Learners

Education: A federal probe yields an agreement by Newport-Mesa schools to revamp their 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.

Probe Found an Array of Problems

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

* The 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 speakers entered 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, Newport-Mesa 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."

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.

The mother who filed the complaint a year ago, an immigrant from 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, she had mothers constantly coming to her with worries about how their children were being treated at TeWinkle. 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, another parent, Ana Gonzalez, was outraged because her eighth-grade daughter, Annie, was kept out of science and math and instead placed in four consecutive periods of English language development--even though she spoke English well.

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 U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights and the State Department of Education.

Castellanos said that 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 the issue of schoolwide programs for English learners. When the federal agency got involved, however, its investigators found that such complaints were not isolated cases, but that TeWinkle was systematically failing to meet non-English-speaking students' needs.

David Ramirez, executive director of the Center for Language and Minority Education Research at Cal State Long Beach, said such investigations are a serious business.

The Office for Civil Rights "typically does not go into a district unless there's real flagrant lack of attention to meeting the needs of these kids," he said.

Mediation Deal Reached With State

Meanwhile, Burciaga's complaint to the state Education Department was resolved without a formal investigation. Instead, district officials worked out a mediation agreement with the state, in which the district agreed to comply with additional state regulations not covered by the federal agreement.

Though California voters curtailed bilingual education in 1998, public schools are still required to have programs for English learners.

The state agreement calls for the district to create parent committees to advise all district schools on English learner issues. It says that, from now on, schools will make sure that all documents sent home are translated into Spanish. And though Castellanos said money intended for English language learners has always been apportioned properly, new procedures will also allow the parent committees to review the school's budget and see for themselves.

Burciaga said that she will be watching to make sure the district follows through and that she won't hesitate to speak up if she sees problems.

"I feel upset," she said. "Why do I have to file a complaint . . . take time from my family, my business, my kids . . . to get something that is supposed to be there?"

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