Ventura's Schools Hit With Federal Bias Finding

Education: U.S. officials say the district shortchanges limited English speakers. Remedies are being sought.

A federal civil rights investigation has found the Ventura school system in violation of U.S. laws requiring equal educational opportunities for students with limited English skills.

The probe by the U.S. Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights began last May at the same time as a federal investigation into allegations of discriminatory enrollment practices at Mound School in Ventura.

The investigation followed a complaint that children with limited English skills have only a haphazard chance of getting a solid bilingual education in the Ventura Unified School District.

Only five of Ventura’s 17 elementary schools have instructors qualified to teach students who speak little or no English. The other 12 rely on teachers’ aides, including some with no foreign language skills.

After visiting four Ventura schools this fall, federal education investigators concluded that the district has been violating civil rights laws that require equal access to education regardless of students’ race or ethnic background.

To quickly resolve the matter, Ventura school officials agreed on Nov. 19 to devise a program to improve its education of limited-English students and report back to federal investigators on the program’s success.

“It is something that as a district we’ve been working to remedy,” said Jennifer Robles, the district’s bilingual specialist. “This is going to cause us to focus more energy on this area and perhaps to remedy this situation sooner.”

The U.S. Education Department investigation also looked into allegations that Mound School’s enrollment practices effectively discriminate against minorities. To resolve that complaint, the district also agreed last month to take certain actions to boost the number of minority students, such as giving nonwhite children preference in the popular school’s annual admissions lottery.

Ventura school officials have kept both investigations quiet, rarely mentioning them in public meetings. “It’s not something you’re proud of,” Robles said. “It is not a positive to say that the Office of Civil Rights has been to your district.”

Despite the negative implications of the twin federal investigations, Ventura school officials pointed out that the Education Department’s findings did not conclude that Ventura schools are completely failing to educate students with limited-English skills.

“I don’t think our district is a bad example of what bilingual education is available,” Robles said.

The Ventura district has about one qualified bilingual instructor for every 36 children with limited English, a far better ratio than the state average of one instructor for every 61 students in bilingual programs.

Ventura’s middle school students with limited English are bused to DeAnza Middle School, which has an extensive bilingual program. And the district’s two high schools have received federal money to enhance their bilingual education programs.

But at the elementary level, only 771, or four-fifths of the 990 kindergarten-through-fifth-grade students with limited English skills attend the five schools with bilingual programs: E.P. Foster, Juanamaria, Montalvo, Sheridan Way and Will Rogers.

The remaining 219 children are scattered among the other 12 elementary schools. Their abilities range from understanding absolutely no English to being fluent in speaking the language but limited in writing.

Arnaz School, for example, has only one student with limited English skills, while Poinsettia has nine.

“It’s not as though there are zero services” at the 12 schools without formal bilingual programs, Robles said. “The focus of this complaint is that the services are not provided by qualified teachers.”

All 12 schools without formal bilingual programs rely on teacher’s aides to work with limited-English students. And some of those aides do not speak Spanish or another second language.

One problem, Robles said, is a statewide shortage of qualified bilingual instructors.

Up until now, Ventura has concentrated most of its bilingual teachers at the five schools that have the greatest number of limited-English-speaking students. While the majority of these children are native Spanish speakers, some speak Vietnamese, Tagalog or other languages.

In such bilingual programs, children learn core subjects such as math and reading in their native tongue until they become fluent enough in English to switch over.

In contrast, at schools without bilingual programs, children who know little or no English are expected to learn to read and solve math problems in an unfamiliar language. These students typically fall behind because they need to learn English before they can understand the content of their courses.

Many never catch up, Robles said.

Sheridan Way Principal Trudy Arriaga said the federal investigation will force the district to make bilingual education a priority.

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