District focusing on problems

SCHOOLS: Corona-Norco's English Language Learners program is monitored by the state.

Spanish-speaking parents got letters in English from their children’s school. Some found their children in all-English classes after choosing academic programs taught partly in Spanish. And some children didn’t get tested for English fluency.

These are some of the problems state educators found in Corona-Norco’s English Language Learners program for the district’s 6,000 students learning English. State officials met with school district administrators this week and will return in mid-March to determine how long the Corona-Norco Unified School District must remain under the scrutiny of the state through a program known as Comite.

The program takes its name from the Comite de Padres, a group of parents whose 1979 lawsuit led to closer review of educational programs for limited-English speakers. Since 1985, state education officials have chosen 10 school districts a year for the program.

Districts can remain in the program for years, said Lauri Burnham, manager of the Comite Followup Monitoring Unit.

Corona-Norco school administrators say some of the problems cited didn’t happen or occurred only a few times. But they want to make things right with the state Department of Education, which has monitored the program for more than a year.

“Rather than debating, we want to just make sure we’re addressing it,” said Steve Kennedy, a director of learning support services for the 40,000-student Corona-Norco Unified School District.

A top goal of the Corona-Norco school board is to fix the problems.

Irma Ramirez, a parent and former president of Corona-Norco’s District English Language Learners Advisory Committee, said she’s glad that state officials will look beyond the district’s compliance paperwork.

“I really hope they find out the truth,” Ramirez said, adding that she, too, has found problems with the program. “Sometimes in papers, we can do things really nice and pretty.”

In Corona-Norco, Miguel Elias, a director of learning support services who oversees the programs, said some of the problems were never widespread.

For example, the report states that “several students” were not tested for English fluency at the district’s language assessment. Instead, they ended up at a school where, officials discovered, they were still learning English.

Employees may have erred, Elias said. Or parents may have left the crowded center and never returned for their child’s testing, he said.

“One may have slipped by, six may have slipped by,” Elias said.

“Hearsay” is how Elias characterized the allegation that “many” school and district letters weren’t translated into Spanish. He pointed to a stack of bilingual letters on the front counter of Parkridge School for the Arts in Corona and an office sign reminding Spanish-speaking parents to ask for an interpreter.

In response to the state report, district officials said they will step up their monitoring of students who are still learning English, and they will write a note explaining the language options available to parents.

Prop. 227 restricted bilingual education, but, with a waiver, it gives parents the choice of English immersion, mainstream English classes or classes that are heavily Spanish.

Corona-Norco parents will now choose their children’s program on campus, officials said. Before, they chose it at the testing center and sometimes changed their mind once they got to the school and talked to the principal or teacher, district officials said.

Corona-Norco teachers and principals say they will keep helping students and families who speak little English.

At Parkridge, where about 60 percent of students fit that description, teacher Selena Quintana-Colombia just wrapped up a six-week training session aimed at Spanish-speaking parents.

And, in February, an English Language Development Academy will be launched for fourth- through sixth-graders lagging at the lowest levels of English fluency, she said.

“This was all in place — even before Comite,” Quintana-Colombia said.

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Violations in programs for students learning English

State education officials found flaws in Corona-Norco schools’ programs for native Spanish speakers, including:

Officials did not properly test students’ progress learning English.

The district’s language assessment center did not test some students to gauge English fluency.

Some schools did not offer English immersion.

English Learners Advisory Committees did not train parent members, follow proper procedures or let parents help set agendas.

Many letters went home only in English

Some students placed in majority-English classes by the language center were switched to all-English classes at their school.

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