District to Overhaul English Instruction

Education: Responding to federal probe, Newport-Mesa agrees to revamp its methods.

Newport Beach and Costa Mesa schools have agreed to revamp the way they teach students who are not fluent in English after a federal civil rights investigation found that a middle school was providing an inadequate education for those children.

Under the Oct. 24 agreement, the Newport-Mesa Unified School District promises to make major fixes by next summer or risk losing federal funding.
Among the changes: creating a master plan to teach the 6,000 youngsters–30%
of the district’s enrollment–who are not fluent in English, training teachers better and hiring a translator so Spanish-speaking parents can understand board meetings.

A separate agreement with the California Department of Education, signed in September, requires the district to create English-language advisory committees at every school and allow those committees to review budgets to make sure money for English learners is spent properly.

The state and federal governments got involved after a parent at TeWinkle Middle School in Costa Mesa, Mirna Burciaga, filed complaints against the district last November. Among the findings of investigators from the U.S.
Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights:

* The school district did a spotty job of assessing whether children were fluent in English, and as a result, students were not placed in appropriate programs.

* The district lacked clear standards for placing Spanish-speaking students in the regular educational program, which meant that many non-English-speaking students were dropped into regular classes without proper support.

* District officials did not hire enough teachers qualified to work with children who struggled with English, and many non-fluent students were put in classes with teachers who lacked the skills to help them.

* The district should provide Spanish translations at school board meetings.

District officials had no quarrels with the findings or the new requirements.

“It’s been a good thing for us,” said Jaime Castellanos, the district’s director of secondary education. “It has raised our awareness of what we need to do. We need to show proof that we’re dealing with these issues.”

Castellanos said the district should have had a plan in place already, but that no one in the district had taken responsibility for creating or monitoring one. “We just didn’t have a focused plan,” he said. “No one owned the programs . . . we kind of had no direction for it.”

Parents hailed the changes, but said they are upset it took a federal investigation to make the district do what is right for their children.

TeWinkle School Failing to Meet Students’ Needs

The mother who filed the complaint a year ago, a native of El Salvador, said her children speak English and were doing fine. But in her role as president of the parents’ group Madres Costa Mesa, Burciaga said mothers were constantly coming to her with worries about how their children were being treated at TeWinkle. Yet two years of complaints to the district fell on deaf ears, she said.

“I have an accent problem when I talk,” Burciaga said. “But that doesn’t mean I have an accent problem when I think . . . This is just the beginning.”

Maria Socorro Heredia had complained to Burciaga that her seventh-grade son went two months without being given homework, and that he could not understand what was going on in his regular-curriculum classes because his English was poor and teachers talked too fast.

On the other hand, Ana Gonzalez was outraged because her eighth-grade daughter, Annie, was kept out of science and math and instead was placed in four consecutive periods of English language development–even though she speaks English well.

“I was in a class with people who came from Mexico,” said Annie Gonzalez,
who was born and reared in Costa Mesa and is now a freshman at Estancia High School. “The work I was supposed to do was way too easy, so I just helped the teacher.”

Annie said she complained several times to her counselor and school officials, asking to be able to take science and math but was told that her schedule was set. Months later, she was finally moved, but by then she was hopelessly behind, she said.

As president of the group, Burciaga complained to the principal and district officials about these and other issues. Dissatisfied with their response,
she filed complaints with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights and the State Department of Education.

Castellanos said school officials met several times with Burciaga over issues at TeWinkle and that officials had tried to address her complaints.
He said her concerns were often about discipline issues and did not seem focused on schoolwide programs for English-language learners. But when the federal agency got involved, its investigators found that such complaints were not isolated cases, but that TeWinkle was systematically failing to meet the needs of non-English-speaking students.

David Ramirez, executive director of the Center for Language and Minority Education Research at Cal State Long Beach, said such investigations are a serious business.

The office for civil rights “typically does not go into a district unless there’s real flagrant lack of attention to meeting the needs of these kids,”
he said. This year, the Office for Civil Rights has resolved similar English-learner issues in five other California school districts: Oceanside Unified, and Parlier Unified, Oakdale Joint Unified, Winton Unified and Tracy Joint Unified in the San Joaquin Valley, according to federal officials.

Meanwhile, Burciaga’s complaint to the California Department of Education was resolved without a formal investigation. Instead, district officials worked out a mediation agreement with the state, in which the district agreed to comply with additional state regulations not covered by the federal agreement.

Though California voters curtailed bilingual education in 1998, public schools are still required to have programs for English learners. They are supposed to have a system to identify whether students need help with English, and then be able to provide those students with English language development while still keeping up with their academic work. Teachers are required to have proper training, and parents are supposed to be able to participate in the process. Districts also are supposed to have ways of evaluating the effectiveness of their program.

Newport-Mesa will now do all those things, Castellanos said.

The state agreement calls for the district to create parent committees to advise district schools on English-learner issues. It says that schools must make sure that all documents sent home are translated into Spanish. And though Castellanos said money intended for English-language learners always has been apportioned properly, new procedures will allow the parent committees to review the school’s budget and see for themselves.

To give all these reforms an added push, Newport-Mesa has also been picked as one of 10 districts statewide to have its English-language-learner programs reviewed this year under the terms of a 1986 lawsuit to ensure proper programs for English learners. That review is unrelated to the federal and state complaints, but will touch on many of the same issues,
Castellanos said.

Burciaga said she will be watching to make sure the district follows through.

The last two years have been difficult ones, she said. She took time from her family and her restaurant business to research state and federal rules and interview parents and teachers. She cleared out a corner of her house and watched the documents–dense wordy tomes of bureaucratic language–stack up. And, through it all, she continued to meet with the Madres Costa Mesa and listen to parents’ concerns.

“I feel upset,” she said. “Why do I have to file a complaint . . . take time from my family, my business, my kids . . . to get something that is supposed to be there?”

Master Plan

To fix the problems identified by the U.S. Department of Education, the Newport-Mesa Unified School District has promised to develop a master plan to educate students who are learning English. The plan, which will be in place by May, proposes to accomplish the following:

* Identify and assess the needs of students learning English and create a program for English language development at all grade levels.

* Make sure that students learning English have equal access to all programs and services offered to the general student population.

* See to it that students also receive proper instruction in the core curriculum while they are learning English.

* Monitor students’ progress and determine whether adjustments are necessary.

* Ensure that teachers have proper skills to work with English-language learners.

* Make administrators accountable for the program.

* The district will come up with a plan to identify students at TeWinkle Middle School who need services and make sure they get them.

* Hire a translator so Spanish-speaking parents can understand and participate at school board meetings.

* Provide semi-annual progress reports to the Office for Civil Rights.

Source: Newport-Mesa Unified School District

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