State to Check New Charge of Bias at Newhall School District

State education officials today will begin the third investigation in 10 years into allegations that the Newhall School District discriminates against some Latino students by segregating them from classmates until they learn English.

Two prior investigations by state and federal officials largely cleared the district of similar charges, although in one case school administrators were ordered to make relatively minor policy changes.

The current, two-day investigation by the state Department of Education comes in response to complaints filed by three parents about the district’s bilingual education program, said Fred Tillman, manager of the department’s complaint processing unit.

Under the program, the district’s 600 limited English-speakers receive instruction in reading and writing in their native language while learning English. Known as the transitional method, the technique is designed to prevent limited English-speakers from falling behind in basic skills while preparing to take all their classes in English.

But the parents who complained to the state advocate the immersion method, in which Spanish-speakers take classes in English with their English-speaking classmates.

“They’re here in America — they should be taught in English,” said Barbara Fernandez, one of the parents who filed a complaint with the state. Fernandez, a second-generation Mexican-American, said she learned English in kindergarten through the immersion method.

The parents — Fernandez and Cynthia and Robert Erickson — allege in their complaint that the district’s program prevents Spanish-speaking students from receiving an education equal to their English-speaking classmates’. They also complain that English-speaking students at Newhall Elementary School, which has a high percentage of minorities, receive a worse education than students at other schools with fewer minorities because of the transitional program.

Parents are not permitted to transfer their children to schools of their choice unless they meet certain district criteria, such as the school’s proximity to a parent’s workplace.

“Newhall is perceived as a high-minority, low-achieving school,” Erickson said. “If you were a parent, would you want to send your children there?”

But school Supt. J. Michael McGrath defended Newhall School, saying students have done well on achievement tests. About 250 of the school’s 700 students are limited English-speakers, he said.

“Quite frankly, they’re bigots,” McGrath said. “They describe having Hispanic children in the schools as a burden that should be shared equally.”

Fernandez and the Ericksons have said they want the 600 limited English-speaking students in the district to be dispersed equally throughout the district’s six elementary schools, instead of concentrated at about four schools. The students would have to be bused, primarily from the Newhall area, a step McGrath has said he is unwilling to take.

McGrath said he is confident the team of three state investigators will clear the district of any wrongdoing in a report that is expected to be filed in January. Similar complaints by parents and community leaders in the past proved unfounded, he said.

In 1986, investigators from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights found that the district was “clear of Hispanic prejudice.”

A year earlier, state education officials concluded that the district was in violation of several provisions of the state education code pertaining to bilingual education. After the probe, the district made some changes in its policy, particularly in the way it informs parents of the way in which the bilingual program works.

A follow-up visit by state investigators in the spring of 1986 exonerated the district.

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