Albuquerque school officials say they expect the federal government to require changes in the district’s bilingual program, partly because it includes students who don’t need the special instruction.
At some schools, students who only speak English are placed in the program because a parent speaks another language, often Spanish, said Wilfredo Sandoval, who oversees the program.
Sandoval said this week he expects the U.S. Department of Education will require Albuquerque Public Schools to start giving students oral and written tests to assess their English language skills.
The state Education Department has already told an Albuquerque elementary school to correct problems in its bilingual program.
APS officials say the entire district likely will face similar action soon by the federal government.
La Luz Elementary was told last month it has failed to notify parents their children were being assigned to bilingual classrooms, according to a letter from the state to principal Gerald Hunt.
The state said the school was also criticized for providing inadequate English language instruction for students with limited English skills, for failing to teach those same students subjects like math and science in their native language and for not having enough Spanish textbooks.
Sandoval said Hunt has written a response, detailing how the school’s program will be brought into compliance.
Meanwhile, a separate, districtwide investigation is being conducted by the U.S. Education Department’s Office of Civil Rights.
Results will be available after July 17.
“We’re still working with the school district, so it’s too preliminary to talk specifics,” said Lillian Gutierrez, the deputy director of the regional federal office. “But we plan to negotiate an agreement with the superintendent next month.”
APS spokesman Rick Murray said, “We anticipate the district will be in noncompliance in some areas.” He declined to elaborate.
Although APS has bilingual classes for students at all levels, the program’s first obligation is to teach students who speak little or no English.
“A student who needs to learn English also needs to learn math and science,” Sandoval said. “But it’s easier for that student to learn those subjects in his home language, so he doesn’t fall behind his English-speaking classmates. That’s the idea behind bilingual education.”
Fifty-seven Albuquerque elementary, middle and high schools offer the state- funded program, which enrolled about 26,000 students last year.
Although some schools offer bilingual instruction in regular classrooms, others pull out students for instruction and some have teachers who travel among classrooms.
The state pays the district about $13 million a year, or $188 an hour of instruction for each student. The length of individual programs varies from one to three hours a day.
If the district fails to comply with federally required changes, it could lose federal money it gets for other education programs, Sandoval said.
“That’s not going to happen,” he said. “As a district, we want to develop a plan to better serve our students.”
One aspect of the plan will be a new way to identify students who truly need bilingual instruction.
APS has relied on information from an “ethnic language survey form” that parents fill out each school year.
For example, if parents note that Spanish is spoken in the home, their child may then be labeled as having “limited English proficiency” and be placed in a bilingual classroom, he said.
Parent Irene Otero said she’s unhappy because her child, who speaks only English, has been in a bilingual program at Chaparral Elementary for two years.
“From what I saw, the children that really needed the work with bilingual programs didn’t get it,” she said. “And I don’t think my son gained anything at all from the program.”
Otero said the program suffered from an inadequately trained teacher and a lack of textbooks.
Sandoval said he expects another shortcoming will be the district’s lack of teachers accredited in bilingual instruction. Correcting it, he said, will be expensive.
The program now has more than 300 teachers and teaching assistants, but not all are accredited.
“We’ll have to train a large number of teachers,” he said. “We’ll have to pay the teachers for that training, and we’ll have to pay substitutes while those teachers are being trained.”
He said APS has had a problem attracting accredited instructors because of pay.
“That’s true of virtually every specialized program,” said Don Whatley, president of the Albuquerque Teachers Federation. “It’s a function of the marketplace and bilingual teachers can go to almost any district in the country and earn a higher wage than they can here.”
Anita Hall said she was hired as an APS bilingual resource teacher in 1992. Although she speaks Spanish, she wasn’t an accredited bilingual teacher and had no experience in that area. The job description recommended someone with at least three years’ experience, she said.
“I was very unhappy with the program,” she said. “But I agreed to stay on the condition that they make changes, but that never happened.”
Hall said she told administrators the program wasn’t being run according to state requirements.
When the district opted not to renew her contract at the end of the 1993 school year, Hall said she wrote letters to the state and federal education departments.
She stepped up her campaign last year when her English-speaking son entered kindergarten at La Luz Elementary and was placed in a bilingual program after Hall, on the APS parent form, identified herself as a Spanish speaker.
Hall said she is considering suing APS because she believes the district refused to renew her contract based on her complaints.
District officials said they wouldn’t comment because Hall’s allegations are personnel issues.
Sandoval said he thinks Hall’s complaints are part of the reason the district is being investigated.
“But I welcome this investigation,” Sandoval said. “I’m excited about these changes. I think APS wants to do the right thing and make sure we address all the needs of limited English proficiency students.”