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ACLU Pushing For English Classes For 20,000 California Kids
January 25, 2013 9:33 a.m.
David Loy, Legal Director, ACLU of San Diego & Imperial Counties
Cristina Alfaro, SDSU Department of Policy Studies in Language and Cross Cultural Education
Related Story: ACLU Pushing For English Classes For 20,000 California Kids
CAVANAUGH: According to numbers from the state, thousands of students in California are not receiving mandated English language instruction. And the American Civil Liberties Union is threatening to take the issue to court. The ACLU has given state officials 30 days to provide adequate English instruction before it files a lawsuit. Here in San Diego, the numbers show the largest number of kids not receiving English language services are in the Grossmont, Vista, and San Marcos school districts. First off, earlier today, I spoke with Theresa Kemper, assistant superintendent of educational services at Grossmont union high school district. Hello, Theresa, welcome to the program.
KEMPER: Thank you very much.
CAVANAUGH: Now, Grossmont has not emerged very well in these news reports about the threatened ACLU lawsuit over English language instruction. The report shows 41% of students classified as English language learners are not getting services at Grossmont. How do you respond to that?
KEMPER: That it's misleading. It's not accurate. All of our students who are English learners are in fact receiving services.
CAVANAUGH: As I understand it, Theresa, these are numbers the district gave the state.
KEMPER: That is correct. The district has to report to the state. The state implemented a new electronic database a number of years ago, and there have been some difficulties from year to year. But overall difficulty match categories, what the state is asking for, how that compares to how we report data within our own system. And so there has not been a match. And so we get a group that looks like we have students who are not receiving services. But that's in fact not correct.
CAVANAUGH: So this is not an accurate representation of the kinds of services at Grossmont, is that what you're saying?
KEMPER: That's exactly correct. We're in fact providing more services to this population than we ever have.
CAVANAUGH: Who sort of programs does your district offer?
KEMPER: We have a very robust English learner program. We have English learner coordinators at each school who work with a team of teachers who are all specially trained to work on language acquisition and language development. At the district level, we have implemented a new program and put a lot of resources to it. We have the newcomer center. And in that, we have it staffed with a teacher who is a teacher on special assignment, and a counselor, a director, we have translators who all work very hard on making sure students are assessed and placed correctly and are receiving services. Part of the work of the newcomer center is also to provide professional development to the coordinates and all the teachers.
CAVANAUGH: And how successful would you say these programs have been?
KEMPER: I'd say it's been very successful. When the program started, we saw a much quicker turnaround rate to getting kids identified and tested, and identifying the needs and providing services for the teachers to be better equipped to teach these students.
CAVANAUGH: Just if you could try to make this a little bit more clear for me, you give numbers to the state that basically show that 41% of the people who need to learn English at Grossmont union high school district are not getting the services. How do you -- you see those numbers and you see the 41%, how do you explain that?
KEMPER: What happened is there's a large number of students, and that's that 41%, they happen to be our higher performing English language students, English learners. And those students are mainstreamed into our regular population. So they're sitting out there in -- not in special English language development classes, but they're sitting out in freshman English, sophomore English, college preparatory classes and honors classes, even in AP classes getting instruction within the mainstream program. So the problem has been how to tag those in the data system so they go into the appropriate category for CDE's database. And we obviously have missed how we should be marking them to show up correctly. They're not students who are receiving no services. In reviewing our process within our departments, I've determined it's a problem we think we could fix with a short conversation between several of our departments and change how we tag those students for our reporting this year.
CAVANAUGH: Theresa, thank you very much for talking with us today.
KEMPER: Sure, thank you very much.
CAVANAUGH: That was Theresa Kemper, assistant superintendent of Grossmont union high school district educational services. My guests in the studio here, David Loy is legal director for the ACLU of San Diego and imperial counties. Welcome back.
LOY: Thank you.
CAVANAUGH: And Christina Alfaro is with the SDSU department of policy and language and cross cultural education.
ALFARO: Thank you.
CAVANAUGH: You heard Theresa Kemper's explanation. News reports about this threatened lawsuit from the ACLU states some 20,000 students statewide are not receiving adequate English language instruction. Do you think some of that number could be explained by the kind of bureaucratic problems that Theresa was talking about?
LOY: That's possible for any given district. But our letter to the state and our white paper on this problem document a significant statewide problem that is far too broad to be accounted for simply by irregularities in reporting. And these are data that districts across the state are required to provide the state. They are publicly available. We've made all our sources and authorities transparent in our demand letter and white paper. So they're free to be verified by anyone. This is a statewide problem of a systematic denial of English language learning services to over 20,000 students statewide, and we think those numbers actually underreport the problem.
CAVANAUGH: So what are schools required to provide for student who is don't speak English?
LOY: As the superintendent noted, they are required to provide sufficient educationally appropriate services so that students can in the appropriate time become English proficient. And to specify, with respect to Grossmont, our case is not about singling out any 1st District as a bad actor. And there may be artifacts of the data reporting at Grossmont. And maybe that district is trying to do the right thing. There may be a problem here with uniform statewide criteria, when to reclassify a student from English language learning to English language proficient. The point of our case, and we've sent this letter to the state, not to demonize districts but to emphasize this is a statewide problem that requires statewide solutions, statewide commitment, statewide support and guidance from the state to the districts. Because like all education and all equal educational opportunity in California, English language learning is fundamentally the ultimate responsibility of the state in California. California is unique in that. California has a uniquely state-based system for providing public education.
CAVANAUGH: Do you have some idea of the reasons why schools may not be providing the services? Is this a money issue?
LOY: It could be a money issue, it could be a lack of sufficient standards, it could be a lack of accountability, it could be a lack of notice to the district and guidance from the state, what they're required to provide. It could be the fact that districts are required to incorporate English language learner who is speak a multitude of languages. It's not just a question of English versus Spanish. You have a large number of students speaking Vietnamese, Hamong, Chinese. Districts do face enormous challenges. And we're happy to talk about Grossmont and see if the problems are an artifact of data reporting or more substancive. We based our letter on figures provided to the state plus our own investigation. So we think it's a statewide problem.
CAVANAUGH: Now, what are some of the challenges when teaching English to English language learners? There are some students who are falling through the cracks. How would that happen?
ALFARO: First of all, I think it goes back to the inconsistency that exists within districts as to when do you reclassify a student and who is determined to be a student that needs these services? That's No. 1. And that's not consistent, then you have a whole array of issues. One of the biggest challenges in our society in general is that we have been very slow to take advantage of the opportunities that students from diverse linguistic and cultural backgrounds bring to the classroom. It goes back to what are we doing to prepare teachers? Both professional development within the schools and -- I work with the college of education, so looking at teachers that are being prepared to work with this diverse linguistic and cultural population. It's not just about the language. It's knowing the background of the student. English learners come with different typologies. Some students come with first language skills, some of them don't. So being able to the brain research about these metalinguistic and cognitive linguistic skills that students come with, and teachers learning to capitalize on that, are that's a big issue.
ALFARO: The second challenge is looking at just this deficit belief that exists when you're working with English learners, instead of looking at the potential that exists, and the opportunity. So we look at it so much as a challenge. But looking at these great opportunity, particularly right now in society we're looking at 21st century skills. That requires another language. When we are constantly looking at programs that really do not take into account what skills this child brings with respect to their first language.
CAVANAUGH: Let me ask you briefly if I may, you work at SDSU, are there -- do you encounter students who have been through grade school and high school in California and come to SDSU at the college level and are not proficient in English?
ALFARO: Yes, I do.
CAVANAUGH: And so that would -- would that show you therefore that as a collective state, we're not doing a very good job at this?
ALFARO: Correct, collectively, I think we're not doing a very good job. I think there are school districts and schools that are doing fantastic in this area. But I think the majority are not. And that's why that problem continues. The gap continues to expand.
CAVANAUGH: David, hasn't California for a number of years been batting around the subject of how or even whether to teach English to students? Hasn't that been a political football in years gone by?
LOY: There is no question that the state and districts are legally required to ensure that all students become proficient in English if they're not already. That's not the question. There may be questions about how to do that. And this is not at all to say there shouldn't be instruction so students learn multiple languages. But the point is English language proficiency is a baseline. It is not the ceiling, but it is a baseline that the state has a fundamental duty to ensure that appropriate services are provided so that baseline is met. How that is to be done may vary from district to district. There may be a variety of different educationally sound methods for doing this. I'm not personally a teacher, so I'm not going to sit here and tell you exactly how a given teacher in a given classroom should do it. That is the responsibility of the State Department of education and the State of California to provide that support and guidance to districts.
CAVANAUGH: So if you're not asking, excuse me, the state specifically for a certain kind of program to be introduced into certain schools, how could the state satisfy your complaint against it considering these 20,000 kids who are not getting the services?
LOY: These 20,000 are not getting any services. It's not a question of whether they're getting good or bad services. They're not getting any. So the baseline duty of the state is to ensure, A, that districts are notified and understand what their duties are. B, the state should investigate and follow up when they get a report that services are not being provided. And C, they should develop and implement accountability measures and follow through to ensure that if it gets a report from the district that a large number of students or any number are not being provided services over a sustained period of time that that's investigated and followed up on and is tracked so that the state follows up with the district to say you've reported 1,000, 2,000, 4,000 students not receiving any students over a sustained period of time. Hey, what's going on? What are you doing to fix that? What services are you providing? And if you need help, by the way, we the state, Department of Education, here's the resources, here's the guidance, here's the training and professional development so that you can do it in a way that works best for your students. We're not talking about good versus bad. We're talking about no services here. And that is what the state needs to fix, to ensure that the appropriate steps are taken and the services are provided.
CAVANAUGH: Christina, I think you can bring this conversation home for us, where it really lives for the students in our schools. If a student is not proficient in English, what effect does that have on the rest of his or her school life?
ALFARO: Well, a lot of times when you don't even have the access to the language, then it basically blocks the access to the content. Then we go back to that long-term English learner. We have so many of them. We always go to Laurie Olson's research on reparable harm. It's huge. And in particular it's huge right now because we are now in the big wave of the common core standards era. These standards are deeper, they're wider, they're more rigorous. So if we have such a huge gap right now with English learners with this new rigor which is going to be implemented -- full implementation, everyone is required by 2013, the fall. And one of the issues with this is that there are 2 pages that have been written that relate to dealing with English learners.
CAVANAUGH: That's all?
ALFARO: That's all. This is where the state does come in. And I had the opportunity to work as an expert advisory panel for the English language development standards that are just being rolled out. So this is one of the things that the state has been able to do under the leadership of cary ca-Derro.
CAVANAUGH: I'm afraid I'm just about out of time.
[ LAUGHTER ]
CAVANAUGH: I am so sorry about that. David, you also in the news release that the ACLU sent out, you also talked about the issue of parents trying to get these services for their kids, and being met with a certain amount of resistance. Is that also part of your complaint?
LOY: Statewide, yes. I can't speak to Grossmont. But statewide, yes. Language access for the parents is a huge issue, so parents are properly informed that their children are English language learners, are entitled to certain services, are receiving or are not receiving certain services, so parents are empowered to advocate for their children as they should be.
CAVANAUGH: I want to thank you both very much for coming in and speaking to me.
ALFARO: Thank you.
KEMPER: Thank you.