Bilingual program being investigated

Garland schools accused of discriminating;official says the district is seeking solutions

GARLAND – The U.S. Department of Education is investigating complaints that the Garland school district’s bilingual education program discriminates against Hispanic students, officials said this week.

The complaint, filed by local Hispanic organizations, said that the school district assigned the students to uncertified teachers who are not bilingual.

“The case is open and under investigation,” said Rodger Murphey, a spokesman for the agency in Washington, D.C. “We are communicating with the school district now about the complaint. We will then make a site visit to Garland. We will be happy to share the findings of our investigation when it comes to closure.”

Federal officials said they opened an investigation because the complaints involve a federally mandated program that receives federal funds.

Graciela Mendiola, who is retiring this month as acting director of the bilingual education program, said the school district has been aware of the problems and is actively searching for solutions.

She said some of the problems relate to the tremendous growth in the number of students enrolled in the program, which has doubled in size in the last three years.

“It seems like we’re building the train as it is moving,” Ms. Mendiola said. “The program is growing so very, very rapidly that it makes it difficult to solve all of its problems. That’s why we’re constantly working on improving it.”

Tony Torres, chairman of the Garland Hispanic Coalition, said the group submitted the complaint because the bilingual education program has long been plagued with problems. He said the district has hired bilingual teachers with little or no experience, and the program has a poor curriculum, lack of classroom resources, shows low performance by bilingual students on the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills test and disproportionate busing of bilingual students.

“Most of the people we’re hiring are just being picked up off the street,” Mr. Torres said. “The Number 1 requirement seems to be the ability to speak Spanish. The attitude is, You’re good enough for these kids.’ But they’re essentially just baby sitters. They’ve got no teaching experience.”

One of the group’s complaints centers on an incident last fall involving an uncertified bilingual education teacher at Abbett Elementary. The teacher left a message on a school district voice mailbox asking a substitute teacher not to teach her bilingual class in Spanish. The teacher’s message said she did not speak Spanish and did not want her students to expect instruction in Spanish when she returned from an absence. The teacher also said she used some of her English-speaking students to translate material in class for students who understood no English.

Garland school officials said the complaint was resolved internally a long time ago, but the solutions were personnel matters that were never discussed with Hispanic leaders. They said they will cooperate with the federal inquiry.

“I welcome an investigation into the issue of the substitute teacher at Abbett Elementary,” said Deborah Cron, assistant superintendent for instructional services. “We were horrified that a teacher had left an instruction of this sort for a substitute.

Frankly, I applauded the way our principal and personnel departments responded. The matter was handled swiftly.”

School district officials said they are hiring the best-qualified teachers they can find, given that the whole country is experiencing a shortage of bilingual education teachers.

Gary Reeves, assistant superintendent for personnel, said the district only hires teachers with valid college degrees. However, in some cases, some new teaching candidates have been placed in the classroom after leaving other jobs outside education, such as food service or maintenance work.

“It very well could be that there was someone who graduated from college with a teaching degree, decided they wanted to be a waitress for a few years and then came to work in the classroom,” Dr. Reeves said.

“Because of the rapid growth of the Hispanic population, there’s not a whole lot you can do about” the low levels of experience of the teachers hired, Dr. Reeves said. “All the school districts in Texas are scurrying around, trying to find a person that has a degree and trying to get them to go back to school and get the bilingual education certificate.”

Dr. Reeves said the number of students who qualify for bilingual education in Garland grows about 15 percent each year. This fall, 2,354 elementary students are expected to enroll in the program, school officials said.

The district employed 126 teachers for the program last fall. Of those, 41 were fully certified in bilingual education, 22 were earning a certificate, and 63 were classified as permanent substitutes with no Texas certification, Dr. Reeves said.

School officials said they have taken several measures to improve the program in the past year, including hiring a full-time teacher recruiter, spending more money on staff development for bilingual teachers, rewriting curriculum for the program, buying more books and instructional materials for the classroom, and allowing more students in the program to choose their neighborhood school instead of being bused across town.

“Everything we’ve done in the past year has been to make the program more accountable,” Dr. Cron said. “We’re not afraid of saying that the test scores of bilingual students are weak. We’ve set up lots more measures to make the program more accountable.”

Dr. Cron said the bilingual education department has begun to use national standardized tests to better track the achievement of its students.

A volunteer task force of school board members, administrators, teachers, parents and students also has been evaluating the program to determine ways that it can be improved. It recently recommended that the district create a “Grow Your Own” program to train new teachers.

Beginning this fall, the school district will tap into a $ 25,000 fund to pay for the tuition of six staff members who currently work as teacher aides or school secretaries who want to finish their college degrees and become certified bilingual teachers.

The complaint to the Department of Education was filed in March by the Garland Hispanic Coalition. The group represents the Garland Association for Hispanic Affairs, the Hispanic Parents Association, the Catholic Hispanic Parents Association and the League of United Latin American Citizens.

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