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School districts baffled about why they’re on English learners monitoring list

Norwalk preschool teacher, Stefanie Servin, reads to her class as her LAUP coach, Astrid Feist, observes and takes notes from the back of the classroom.
Deepa Fernandes / KPCC
Norwalk preschool teacher, Stefanie Servin, reads to her class as her LAUP coach, Astrid Feist, observes and takes notes from the back of the classroom.

Days after California and federal officials agreed to improve service to English learners, most of the school districts on the list the state agreed to monitor more closely said they were surprised they were on it.

The settlement between the U.S. Department of Justice and the California Department of Education compels the state to, among other things, respond in a "timely and effective manner" to information that schools are not serving English learners, improve online monitoring technology, and include charter schools in English learner reviews.

The settlement also targets for state monitoring four school districts, one county office of education, and a high school.

“It doesn’t really make sense to me,” said Anita Alfonso, head of English learner services at the Menifee Union School District in Riverside, one of those on the list.

“We feel like we’re doing a lot right now,” she said, including purchasing new curriculum material for English learners, training teachers, and helping the parents of English learners.

“We were not aware of this at all,” said Santa Monica Malibu Unified School District spokeswoman Gail Pinsker. Her district also made the list. “We’re checking with different agencies to learn about what exactly this means and what the requirements are for moving forward under this [California Department of Education] settlement.”

The superintendents of Burbank Unified and San Gabriel Unified were also puzzled their districts made it on the list and said they received no notification from state or federal officials.

Burbank Unified officials provided numbers to KPCC detailing English learners who didn’t receive services in the time period in question. There were about 100 students or fewer in each of those years. The school district’s superintendent believes the issue had to do with incorrect coding of English learners in the district’s data system.

English learner advocates say federal law compels school districts to provide services to every English learner.

“So even if there are not that many students being deprived of services, the fact that the problem persists over a number of years suggests that there is something very systemic about the problem in those districts,” said Nicole Ochi, a lawyer with the Asian Pacific American Legal Center, one of the groups that called attention to the issue in 2013.

Ochi said that her group found school districts that had much more serious problems helping English learners than these school districts and that by selecting these districts, officials may be sending a message to all school districts to make sure every English learner student is identified.

California and U.S. Department of Justice officials did not respond to requests to explain in detail how the school districts were selected for the watch list.

The school districts, according to the settlement, reported that they had students who weren’t provided English learner services in a five-year period starting in 2007 and were not scrutinized by the state in roughly that same period. The settlement document directs state officials to visit the five school districts and one school on the monitor list or conduct online monitoring in the next two years.

The issue of English learners became a hot topic in 2013 when public interest lawyers detailed that 251 California school districts failed to provide any specialized services to about 20,000 English learners. This was a violation of state and federal laws.

Lawyers’ efforts to push state officials to correct the situation failed and lawyers filed a lawsuit the following year.

Federal law compels school districts to serve English learners in order to remove barriers that prevent the students from fully participating in their education. In 2015, after reviewing the allegations in the lawsuit, the U.S. Department of Justice found that California’s Department of Education was in violation of federal law because it didn’t do enough to monitor that schools were providing these services.

California officials responded to the lawsuit by saying that the 20,000 made up a small portion of the state’s 1.4 million English learners.

The state settled the lawsuit in 2015, promising to improve its monitoring of schools. Friday’s settlement resolves the Department of Justice findings that the state wasn’t complying.

But advocates believe there's work still to be done.

“The more difficult questions are around the effectiveness of the services that they are getting,” Ochi said. And that involves scrutinizing how schools use education funds to improve English learner services and holding those schools accountable.