More than 20,000 California students struggling with English are not receiving any legally required services to help them, setting them up for academic failure, according to a recent report by two civil rights organizations.
The study compiled 2010-2011 state data showing that students of all ages in 261 state school districts were receiving no specialized support to help them acquire English, as required under both state and federal law.
The districts with the largest number of students receiving no aid included Los Angeles Unified with 4,150, Compton Unified with 1,697 and Salinas Union High with 1,618, according to the report by the American Civil Liberties Union of California and the Asian Pacific American Legal Center.
Students who have been designated "English learners" make up one-quarter of all California public school students; 85% are U.S.-born. Continued failure to teach them English — they are among the lowest-performing groups of students — will leave them further behind and jeopardize California's future, the report said.
"State educational officials are creating a caste system whereby tens of thousands of children — nearly all of whom are U.S. citizens — are denied access to the bond of English language that unites us as Californians," said Mark Rosenbaum, chief counsel of the ACLU of Southern California.
The two organizations, along with the Los Angeles law firm Latham & Watkins, warned of possible litigation unless the state responds in 30 days with a plan for action. The legal advocates are demanding stronger state monitoring, including investigations of districts that report they provide no services, requirements to create a plan to do so and sanctions if they fail to comply.
But state education officials said that 98% of the state's 1.4 million English learners were receiving services and that recent court decisions had found that the California Department of Education was fulfilling its legal obligations to monitor help for them.
"Despite the enormous financial strains of recent years, California has made dramatic progress in seeing that all English learners receive appropriate instruction and services," state education official Karen Cadiero-Kaplan said in a statement. She added that any parents with concerns should contact their school district.
Jessica Price, an ACLU attorney, said some parents opt out of specialized programs for their children but that the law still requires districts to provide aid until the students are no longer classified as English learners. She said some districts simply don't know how to help the students, while others willfully ignore them — state compliance monitors found that one Northern California district had used state and federal funds for English learners to buy computer monitors and cameras, she said.
One parent, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation by school officials, said she only learned at a district meeting four months ago that her children were entitled to special classes designed for English learners.
She began investigating and learned that her children had never been placed in any of the specialized classes. Neither she nor her children knew they existed, she said.
L.A. Unified's unserved students represented just 2% of its 194,904 English learners. Six of the 15 districts with the highest percentage of students without services were in the northern counties of Yuba, Siskiyou, Shasta, Butte, Sutter and El Dorado.
William S. Hart Union High School District in Los Angeles County reported it provided no services to 1,142 students, representing 54% of all English learners.
Times staff writer Dalina Castellanos contributed to this report.