US District Judge W. Arthur Garrity Jr. yesterday said the Boston School Committee violated desegregation orders when it voted last spring to eliminate Spanish bilingual programs at two high schools.
Ruling from the bench after a 2 1/2-hour hearing, Garrity ordered that bilingual programs at South Boston and English high schools involving 170 students be restored for this school year, which begins today.
Garrity, who originally ordered the desegregation of Boston schools in 1974, said the committee’s decision to scrap bilingual programs for a savings of $ 200,000 “violated an affirmative duty to take reasonable steps to preserve desegregation already achieved.”
Caroline Playter, an attorney for El Comite de Padres, a group of Hispanic parents, had argued that school authorities failed to consider how their decision would alter the racial makeup of individual schools.
For example, she said, eliminating Spanish bilingual programs at South Boston High reduces the number of Hispanic students in predominantly white South Boston.
Playter also said scrapping the programs hurt the education of Hispanic students, a minority group struggling to curb its dropout rate. Currently, one out of every two Hispanic ninth-grade students in Boston drops out before graduation.
Garrity also said the School Department moved too quickly to end the programs without adequately consulting parents.
Some School Committee members condemned the judge’s decision, saying it reflects heightened federal involvement in the Boston public schools at a time when it had been waning.
“This is the type of court interference that has to stop,” said School Committee President John A. Nucci.
Superintendent Laval S. Wilson said the School Committee may convene a special meeting tonight to decide on an appeal.
School Department lawyers had argued that the decision to eliminate bilingual programs at two schools was part of a long-range decision to consolidate its bilingual programs. Keeping bilingual programs in a limited number of sites, instead of spread across many schools, enables staff to offer more comprehensive and quality services, school officials said.
Under the plan, part of a package of cost savings made last spring, bilingual students at South Boston High would have attended bilingual programs at Dorchester High.
The Spanish bilingual students at English High, a citywide magnet school, would have been assigned different high schools throughout the city.
School Committee member Juanita Wade (Roxbury) said she had originally thought consolidation was a good idea, but now sympathizes with the Hispanic students. She said she would vote not to appeal the decision.
“I don’t think being forced to postpone the decision is a slap in the face to the School Committee,” she said.
Dozens of Hispanic parents and students expressed happiness with Garrity’s decision, which culminated a grass-roots effort that began last spring to maintain the programs.
“It’s a victory for the kids,” said Antonio Molina, president of the Bilingual Master Parent Advisory Council.
Jerome Winegar, headmaster at South Boston High School, who testified at the hearing, said he was pleased by the judge’s decision. He said forcing the bilingual students at his school to adjust to another school at this time “would have caused difficulty.”