Inquiry Into Schools' Alleged Anti-Latino Bias

HACIENDA LA PUENTE AREA—Manuel Maldonado says his daughters can’t get math textbooks in Spanish. Rosa Campos claims her son was denied access to a federally funded summer program for low-achieving students.

Socorro Pacheco says her son’s teacher sneered, “Why don’t you learn to speak English,” when she tried to tell the school board about the educational needs of migrant farm workers’ children.

Complaints such as these by Latino parents have prompted a federal agency to open an investigation into whether the Hacienda La Puente Unified School District has violated the civil rights of Spanish-speaking students.

The federal Department of Education’s office for civil rights is looking into allegations that the district harassed families of Latino students, denied them access to the school board during meetings and failed to provide an adequate number of certified bilingual teachers.

“We want to become part of the school environment to help our children succeed, and they treat us like peons, like we don’t matter,” said Marlene Linarte, a former head of the district’s bilingual advisory committee.

Barbara Koehler, assistant superintendent for personnel, confirmed that federal officials have visited the district and interviewed parents, teachers and students. But she said Hacienda La Puente has not violated any civil rights laws. “Just because someone files a complaint doesn’t mean there’s a problem,” she said.

John Palomino, regional director of the office for civil rights, said a second investigation is probing whether Hacienda La Puente fails to provide equal access to disabled students. No details were available in that case.

If the district is found to have violated civil rights in either case, it will be asked to submit a plan to comply with federal law. If that fails, Palomino’s agency could withhold federal funds, although Palomino said 99.9% of the approximately 400 civil rights complaints that his office receives each year are resolved voluntarily.

Hacienda La Puente officials acknowledged that the district has only about 35 certified bilingual teachers to serve a limited English-speaking population of about 4,000 students. The district has 22,000 students, 58% of whom are Latino, 18% Anglo, 16% Asian, 5% black and 3% Pacific Islander, Filipino or American Indian.

District officials said 70 more teachers are earning their bilingual credentials, and they say the district’s staff reflects a statewide shortage in bilingual teachers.

“Some of the parents in La Puente have some very legitimate concerns, and I can understand their frustration,” says John Rieckewald, assistant superintendent for secondary and instructional education. “But I think the district’s made some good faith efforts to address those concerns . . . to recruit bilingual teachers. These aren’t quick-fix issues.”

Some Latino parents say administrators have not tried hard enough. They point out that the district is split along ethnic and economic lines, with the poorer, mainly Latino residents clustered in La Puente, while more affluent Anglo and Asian families live in the hills of Hacienda Heights.

Statistics show La Puente schools are more crowded, have higher dropout rates and lower test scores than schools in Hacienda Heights. In some La Puente schools, up to 80% of the students are Latino; up to half speak limited English.

Some Latino parents also claim that district officials shunt unpopular or problem teachers to La Puente schools.

“We’re a dumping ground for all the district’s problems; we’re the poor side of town,” said Maldonado, co-chair with his brother, Felipe, of the district’s bilingual education committee.

Among other complaints:

* The district is starting a pilot bilingual program this fall for mandarin Chinese-speaking students at Los Molinos Elementary School in Hacienda Heights. There is no such program for Spanish-speaking students in La Puente.

Rieckewald said he doesn’t know why the district picked Chinese, but Los Molinos had extra space for such a program.

* School officials have removed Barbara Carrillo as head of the district’s Bilingual Education Program. Carrillo, who has a doctorate in education, had drawn up the district’s first bilingual master plan and motivated parents to demand equal rights for their children.

She was told she would be transferred to an elementary school classroom this fall because of budget cuts. But her attorney, Henry Barbosa of Los Angeles, said he doesn’t believe that is the real reason, especially since the district is now looking for a new bilingual director.

Parents claim Carrillo was demoted because she challenged the status quo. District officials refused to comment, citing confidentiality.

* Maria Varillas, a spokesperson for the state Assn. of Mexican-American Educators, says the district refuses to send home all announcements in Spanish as well as English. By contrast, other districts with large Latino communities, such as El Monte City School District, say they print all announcements in Spanish and English.

Hacienda La Puente officials say major school announcements are translated into Spanish.

* La Puente parents say their children often lack access to Spanish textbooks. One parent said a child at Nelson School in La Puente was unable to use the class computer because there were no Spanish software programs.

Federal civil rights laws require that schools provide equal access to education for all students, regardless of race, religion or ethnicity. District officials say there isn’t enough money to go around and that Spanish textbooks are hard to find.

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