Costa Mesa school failed English learners, U.S. says

Teaching didn't correlate to language proficiency, report says.

A Costa Mesa middle school failed to adequately teach students learning English as a second language and set many up for failure by thrusting them into regular classes too soon, according to a federal report released this week.

The U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights issued the findings a year after parent and community leader Mirna Burciaga complained about the lack of textbooks and classes at TeWinkle Middle School, which serves nearly 500 students who are not fluent in English, most of them Hispanic.

Many students lacked fully qualified teachers and were placed in classes that were too difficult for them, the report says. At the same time, the district did not enforce standards for determining when a student is fluent in English, the goal of 1998’s Proposition 227, which all but ended bilingual education in California.

The report also says Newport-Mesa Unified School District, which includes TeWinkle, failed to track students’ progress or ensure they got the help they needed.

“To me, this was discriminatory,” Burciaga said Friday. “These children were not receiving what they deserve and what is required by law.”

Federal investigators did not find that parents lacked information about the school, as Burciaga had charged. But investigators said parents who do not speak English cannot follow school-board meetings. District officials pledged to provide a translator.

Newport-Mesa Assistant Superintendent Jaime Castellanos said Friday that programs for English learners have not been up to par.

Officials are drafting a plan to change that and have already started training teachers and getting more parents involved at schools through English Learner Advisory Committees, he said.

“We haven’t had a focused program,” Castellanos said. “To be real frank, I’m really looking forward to making sure we do this right. This is a good thing.”

Newport-Mesa Unified risks losing federal funding if it fails to comply, but that is unlikely because officials are cooperating, an Office for Civil Rights spokesman said. The district serves nearly 6,000 English learners, about 28 percent of the student body.

TeWinkle’s former principal, Sharon Fry, is now principal at Corona del Mar High School in Newport Beach, where 2 percent of the student body is learning English, compared with 58 percent at TeWinkle.

Castellanos said the transfer was a promotion because Fry increased teacher collaboration and student test scores, though Hispanics lag behind whites on the Stanford 9. Fry did not respond to requests for comment.

Burciaga said she welcomes the changes but is upset that she had to file a federal complaint to get something done. State and federal laws have required for years that English learners receive instruction at their level of English proficiency.

The instruction of English is increasingly a concern in California, where nearly 1 in 4 students is not fluent. In Orange County, about 30 percent of the students are not fluent.

The state Department of Education is under court order to better monitor programs for such students. The state is reviewing more than 60 districts across California, including Newport-Mesa and Santa Ana Unified.

Burciaga, whose son attends TeWinkle, said she has wept with frustration since filing the complaint. Her own children already know English, she said, but she felt she had to do something to help the community.

“This isn’t a concern only for Hispanics,” said Burciaga, a restaurant owner who has lived in Costa Mesa for 20 years after emigrating from El Salvador. “I love this community.

“If something isn’t going well,” she added, “I’m going to say so.”

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