Hispanic Students Lost Out

Patterson improves its bilingual services

PATTERSON—Roberto Estrada nearly missed his chance at higher education when he failed his high school proficiency test, in part because he has trouble reading, writing and speaking English.

When the 19-year-old native of Guadalajara, Mexico, found out he could not attend Stanislaus State University in the fall as he had hoped, he was sad, he said through translation by his 11-year-old niece.

Although Estrada, who came to the United States in 1985, later passed the proficiency exam, he and three other immigrant students filed a complaint in July against the Patterson Unified School District charging that discrimination deprived them of the education they needed to graduate.

A subsequent investigation by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights found that while the district has improved its bilingual program since a similar complaint was lodged last year, it did not give Estrada and his Spanish-speaking classmates the same tutoring for the proficiency test that English-speaking students got.

“We seem to either have been found in compliance or to already have made adjustments before the complaint was filed,” Keith Daniel, superintendent of the Patterson Unified School District, said about the written report he received last week from John Palomino in the Office of Civil Rights.

But Daniel acknowledged that the school district did not have bilingual teacher aides at some voluntary, after-school tutoring sessions they offered students that year to help them prepare for the required graduation test.

Under the Civil Rights Act of 1964, all schools are required to provide equal access to programs for students with limited language capabilities. In Patterson, where Hispanic pupils make up roughly 60 percent of the district’s 2,900 students, that issue has been an explosive one.

Although the students in question could have found language assistance through a federal migrant services program, the district should have provided interpreters of their own, Palomino wrote.

As a result of the investigation, Daniel has agreed to provide bilingual instruction at proficiency exam preparation sessions and to be sure that any high school seniors with limited-English abilities get help preparing for the test.

The other three charges against the district included allegations that counselors systematically put Mexican immigrants in classes below their age and academic levels simply because those students did not perform well on placement tests, which were given in English. In many cases, their skills in other subjects such as mathematics were normal, the students claimed.

But the civil rights office investigators found that the district gave many, although not all, of its immigrant students the appropriate tests. And there was not enough documentation to prove school counselors regularly placed non-English speaking students in abnormally low grade levels, Palomino’s report said.

In addition, Estrada’s charge that the district did not give its Hispanic students adequate warning that they would have to pass proficiency tests was unfounded, according to the nine-page document.

And the district already is training additional bilingual aides in answer to previous allegations that it is not providing those students classroom help with language barriers, Palomino found.

Miguel Donoso, a Hispanic activist, helped the students file the complaint.

This is not the first time Hispanic students have made accusations against the Patterson school district. After a parents’ group filed a similar complaint in 1988, Palomino said the district did not properly test immigrant students’ educational skills or meet their educational needs.

Since the 1988 report, school administrators have revised the district’s master plan for bilingual education and trained additional Spanish-speaking teachers, Palomino wrote.

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