Class-Action Lawsuit Aims at Schools' Bilingual Track

The Seattle School District is failing to meet the educational needs of more than 5,000 students with limited English skills, contends a lawsuit filed yesterday by Evergreen Legal Services in King County Superior Court.

Bilingual education in middle and high schools is “in reality a dead-end remedial track” that doesn’t allow full access to the regular curriculum, the 18 Seattle students and nine parents/guardians named in the class-action lawsuit claim.

The families represent some of the largest minority language groups in the district – Vietnamese, Cambodian, Spanish, and Filipino – and include students in kindergarten through 12th grades.

As the number of limited-English students soars in both the state and the nation, the challenge of teaching them grows. School officials say they’re hobbled by a lack of money and certified multilingual teachers.

Census figures released last spring show nearly one in 10 Washington residents speak a language other than English at home.

In King County, the number of residents who speak a language other than English at home has increased by more than 50 percent since 1980.

Nationally, the number of foreign-born residents has reached an all-time high of 20 million, up 42 percent from 1980.

Evergreen Legal Services’ legal action comes after eight months of negotiations with the Seattle district. Negotiations broke down in August.

District officials could not be reached late yesterday.

The suit calls for more resources for bilingual students and native-language instruction in subjects such as math, science and history.

Last school year, 21 percent of the district’s 44,668 students came from homes where English, if spoken at all, is the family’s second language.

About half of those students qualified for transitional bilingual education, where they are taught language arts and other academic subjects in simplified English.

Critics say these bilingual classes – in science, social studies, government and history – are so remedial that limited-English students are left with huge knowledge gaps.

In some cases, critics say, limited-English students are included in regular academic classes without adequate support, creating frustration for bilingual students and for teachers who don’t have enough time or training to deal with them.

In the 1990-’91 school year, 937 students left the district without attaining even limited proficiency in English. Because the district doesn’t routinely track the students it is not known whether they moved without telling the district or whether they dropped out altogether.

State law requires districts to introduce concepts in the primary language of non-English speakers when “practicable.”

The district’s students speak more than 76 different languages, and educators say it’s impossible to find certified teachers and materials in all of those tongues.

Attorney Deborah Perluss of Evergreen Legal Services says the district should at least provide instruction in languages spoken by more than 100 limited-English students: Vietnamese, Cambodian, Spanish, Korean, Chinese, Lao, Filipino, Ethiopian and Russian.

The suit seeks to have the district offer English-as-a-second-language (ESL) instruction at more elementary schools. Because the district has ESL at about half its elementary schools, Perluss says immigrant students must often choose between attending their neighborhood school and receiving help with English.

The suit also contends the district does not adequately assess bilingual students for special education or gifted and talented programs.

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