Who Wants to be Right When Kids are Left Hurting---Again?

Kermit the Frog would lament in song: It’s not easy being green. Blue in the face, I can relate to the frogster. It’s not easy being right about perceived wrongs.

Again. The Orange County school district keeps doing a lot of things wrong. Who wants to be right when it’s the kids who are left hurting?

Eighteen months ago, state education officials found the Orange County school district negligent in the way it teaches English to students who are learning the language for the first time. One in five of the district’s students speaks English as a second language, and that student growth — particularly from Puerto Rico, a U.S. commonwealth — won’t stop soon.

The state’s monitoring of English-as-a-second-language programs covered 24 schools last year. Problems ran the gamut. Several schools failed to provide bilingual teachers or aides who understand Spanish, Haitian Creole, Vietnamese, Portuguese or any other language spoken by at least 15 students in a school — a rule required by a 1990 federal/state agreement. Some schools were dumbing down curriculum or not testing students, who weren’t yet proficient in English but might be gifted. After the audit, district officials pledged things would improve.

They haven’t. At least not according to a second state investigation — this time in response to frustrated parents’ complaints. The state checked 16 schools throughout the county. Some of those are the same schools monitored 18 months ago. Same old. Among the state’s latest findings:

Students who speak Haitian-Creole, Spanish, Vietnamese or Portuguese lacked bilingual teachers at two middle schools — Westridge and Memorial — and two high schools — Evans and West Orange. Those students weren’t receiving “comprehensible instruction,” as required by the 1990 consent decree, particularly in math, science, social studies and computer science.

At West Orange, there were 53 students — freshmen to seniors — all being taught English at the same level regardless of their academic ability or individual needs.

At Liberty and Jackson middle schools, the students weren’t tested for the gifted program. Again, that’s required by the 1990 order that settled a class-action lawsuit.

At several schools — including Lake George and Winegard elementary schools, Westridge Middle and Oakridge High — information that parents need to better understand state graduation requirements for their children was available only in English even though the district has translated much of that information into various languages.

State education officials will be back this month to check on more schools and review procedures. But at what point does this become an exercise in futility? At what point do School Board members take notice and act to provide equal instruction to all kids at all schools? At what point do frustrated parents simply give up and go back to court, costing all of us more?

This isn’t the 19th century when most Americans rarely went past grade school. In today’s global and high-tech economy, it’s to everyone’s benefit to have an educated workforce. Fluency in English is a must, but knowing Spanish and a variety of other languages is a strength, too, and that should apply to English-only speakers. With so many children coming here from somewhere else, why isn’t Orange County parlaying that phenomenon into a winning strategy?

The school district says it spends more on students learning English as a second language than the state and federal governments give Orange County. But, if that’s so, the district sure isn’t producing results for the money it claims to be spending. Any reasonable person must wonder if the district’s convoluted formula might not allow school officials to redirect some of that money for general needs.

Eighteen months ago, several School Board members — notably Chairman Susan Arkin, Rick Roach and Linda Sutherland — held meetings with parents and talked to language experts. Arkin and Sutherland even traveled to New York and San Francisco to find answers in newcomer schools. Change was coming, they said. It takes time, they said. And everybody asks: Why aren’t parents more involved?

But when the Parent Leadership Council points to district lapses, those parents quickly are labeled troublemakers and political opportunists.

And the bureaucrats?

They write “best practices” reports that gather dust at the five area superintendents’ offices, while back in the classroom teachers struggle to do their best, many of them without a clue as to what’s working or what isn’t. Frustrated teenagers keep dropping out. Blue in the face, we see red.


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