A team of state education officials Monday will begin investigating complaints that Orange County schools are failing to provide enough bilingual classes for students who don’t speak or understand English well.
Three Hispanic families complained to the state Department of Education that more than 100 Orange County public schools do not offer non-English-speaking students math, science, social studies and computer instruction in their native languages.
“We want our kids to learn English, but if they can’t learn the language right away, how are they supposed to master their other subjects?” said Evelyn Rivera, one of the parents who complained.
Orange County Schools Superintendent Ron Blocker could not be reached for comment Friday.
The complaint caught district officials off guard.
They said the schools go way beyond what the state requires when it comes to helping students learn English.
“We were surprised that these parents made this official complaint,” said Margaret Gentile, Orange County’s director of education support services.
“We had been working in good faith with them for several months.”
In a letter to state officials, School Board attorney Frank Kruppenbacher called the complaint “an unfortunate misunderstanding.”
More than a decade ago, the state agreed to offer programs to students who aren’t native English speakers to settle a civil-rights lawsuit.
But Rivera and others argue that students learning English still aren’t getting the same quality of education as students who have been speaking English all their lives.
The parents are members of the District Parent Leadership Council, a state-ordered advisory committee made up of parents of non-English speaking students.
The group wrote a letter to state officials in April, and the Bureau of Equity, Safety and School Support will send a group of investigators to Orange County for four days to visit schools, collect data and talk with district administrators.
A spokesman for the Department of Education said the agency would not comment until the investigation is concluded.
The school system provides programs to more than 15,000 students who are learning English.
The schools offer a variety of programs, depending on the number of students who need the services.
MORE TRANSLATORS NEEDED
Some schools do offer classes taught entirely in the students’ native language, such as Spanish, Haitian Creole and Vietnamese, until students become proficient in English. Those schools have the largest number of students who are learning English.
Other schools send children to a special class one hour a day as an alternative to their regular English classes.
That’s not enough, Rivera said.
She said the schools need to have more bilingual programs or there should be more teachers’ assistants who can translate for students in their native languages.
“We have kids who are excellent students in their native language, but they are flunking and dropping out of school because they are not learning English,” said Jose Fernandez, another parent.
FCAT WORRIES PARENTS
Fernandez said parents are especially worried that their children are going to have trouble passing the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test. Starting this year, students must pass the FCAT to earn a high-school diploma.
In a seven-page response to the parents’ complaint, district administrators detailed the programs and training offered to teachers and students. They also said that last year the district spent $48.3 million on programs for English-language learners — $11 million more than the state gave them.
District officials and the parents also disagree on the dropout rate among Hispanic students. The parents said 50 percent of Hispanic students are dropping out of school, while the district said the dropout rate for Hispanics is 5.7 percent, slightly lower than the statewide dropout rate.
Rivera questioned the district’s figures.
“They put these figures together this week because they knew this thing was coming down the pipes,” Rivera said of the DOE’s plans to visit Orange County next week.