Public-school classrooms soon may be friendlier for some 23,000 Utah children whose first language is not English.
The Utah State Board of Education has signed off on a policy promising equal education for all children — regardless of the language they speak.
The Bilingual Education Rule was approved Thursday, more than a year after the U.S. Office for Civil Rights investigated several Utah school districts that did not meet bilingual standards. It also follows a lawsuit filed by six Navajo students who accused the San Juan School District of discrimination.
“It was a quiet milestone,” said Richard Gomez, state educational-equity coordinator.
Gomez said several school districts have been violating the law since 1974, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled schools could not allow language barriers to exclude children from classroom participation.
“The districts thought they were making an appropriate effort,” said Gomez, but the federal government did not agree.
Civil-rights auditors discovered districts were using makeshift programs in which children were removed from their classes for tutoring, often with unqualified aides.
“That denied them an equal education to the other kids who stayed there,” said Gomez.
Moreover, Utah districts didn’t know which children needed bilingual assistance because administrators weren’t using appropriate tests, and some misdiagnosed students were sent to classes for the mentally disabled.
The new rule outlines testing methods, teaching guidelines and program models.
“I wonder how we as a state could be without this so long,” said Ilona Pierce, who directs the bilingual education program for Jordan School District.
Over the past couple of years, Pierce and her staff have developed a program that trains teachers and aides to work with students who speak no English, little English or who don’t have the language skills necessary for particular classes, such as math and science.
So far, nearly 70 teachers have been certified in the program. Pierce estimates that within three years, the state could meet its goal of at least one bilingual-education certified teacher in each school, and several in schools where many students need the service.
Ultimately, the state would like all teachers to have special language training.
Still, Eric Swenson worries the rule will have little impact in San Juan School District.
“Even if districts implemented this, I don’t know if it would be enough,” said the attorney representing six Navajos who claim San Juan discriminated against them by, among other things, not providing adequate bilingual programs.
Besides, there’s no guarantee the districts will follow the rule, said Swenson.
“Particularly in light of the districts’ non-compliance with the law,” he said.