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California neglects education of English learners, lawsuit claims

The suit accuses California of poor oversight and says the state must, by law, act to make sure students who are learning English are keeping pace academically with their peers.

May 31, 2012|By Howard Blume, Los Angeles Times

State officials are neglecting their legal obligation to ensure that students who are learning English are receiving an adequate and equal education, according to a lawsuit filed Wednesday by the ACLU of Southern California and other advocates.

The focus of the litigation is a small school system near Fresno, but the legal implications are broader: The suit accuses the state of poor oversight and says it must, by law, act to make sure these students are keeping pace academically with their peers across California.

The suit claims that the Dinuba Unified School District in Tulare County uses a substandard curriculum to improve the lagging performance of students who have yet to master English.

For the last three years, children in Dinuba "have been subjected to a program … that lacks sound educational support [and] contradicts bedrock principles of how children learn language," according to the lawsuit, which was filed in Sacramento County Superior Court.

In Dinuba, first, second and third graders are removed from their regular classes and instead taught grammar, in English, at a level beyond even what native speakers are exposed to at that age, the suit claims. The result, it says, is that students are missing curriculum they could and should be learning while being drilled on material that is not appropriate.

In a statement, Dinuba Unified Supt. Joe A. Hernandez declined to comment on the substance of the lawsuit but said the district hoped to work with advocacy groups "in good faith to avoid costly and excessive litigation."

The district has described its approach as teaching English as though it were "a foreign language" through methods that "help students understand how English is constructed and used."

Dinuba's approach is uncommon but not unique, according to advocates. The best way to teach students learning English has been a subject of debate for decades. Students learning English in Dinuba score lower on state tests, but so do such students in other school systems.

Dinuba has about 6,150 students. About 30% are classified as learning English.

The state approved Dinuba's approach, according to the suit, which is a main reason the California Department of Education also is being sued.

"No state has a greater stake in the education of children who are learning English as a second language than California," where 23% of students are learning English, said Mark Rosenbaum, chief counsel for the Southern California ACLU. "Yet no state does a poorer job of educating [these] students to communicate and comprehend English."

The state Education Department has frequently taken a hands-off approach to enforcing many education code provisions, citing a lack of resources and deferring to local authorities.

The suit was filed on behalf of two unidentified students, their parents and five teachers. The legal team includes three regional ACLU offices and the Asian Pacific American Legal Center in Los Angeles, among others.

"It is unfortunate that the parties chose to file suit rather than making a good-faith effort to meet with state officials to address their concerns," said Paul Hefner, an Education Department spokesman. State Supt. of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson and the department are "working hard to help districts meet the needs of English learners."

Torlakson issued a release Wednesday commending the gains of students learning English in a recent state assessment, saying that these students are "making important strides toward English-language fluency."

howard.blume@latimes.com

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