Back-to-School Basics: Avoiding Civil Rights Violations (Part 1)

It is the middle of summer in the United States and for some school districts the 2019–2020 school year has already started. Welcome back! For others, it will be starting soon. This blog, the second in a series dedicated to the civil rights of English learners (ELs), highlights a back-to-school basic: the enrollment process. Ah, yes, the paper work involved with starting school!

In 2015, the U.S. Department of Civil Rights in partnership with the Department of Justice issued the Dear Colleague letter outlining the 10 most common civil rights violations related to ELs in K–12 settings. It’s no surprise that the first two violations are the following:

  1. Identification and assessment of language needs in a timely manner
  2. A service model that is educationally sound and research based

Think about these two procedures for a moment, and ask yourself these questions:

  1. What is your school’s and/or district’s enrollment process like?
  2. Could you fully describe it if asked?
  3. Could other educators you work with fully describe the process?
  4. Who is directly and indirectly involved?

Undoubtedly, each new school year, there will be new students. Their family members will enroll them in school and be asked to complete a number of documents. One form may be a Home Language Survey (HLS), sometime referred to as the Home Usage Survey (HUS). Depending upon the answers about the language used in their homes, students are then screened/assessed for their level of English proficiency to see if they are eligible for language support services. In some cases, students are also screened for their native language proficiency level.

This is where the first civil rights violation comes into play.

Violation 1: Identifying English Learners

A number of missteps at this stage can result in an EL failing to be screened. For example, inadvertently overlooking the language parents noted on the HLS during the enrollment process or neglecting to notify the person responsible for screening students can both lead to students slipping by the screening process. All the while, parents/guardians must be informed of the process as well as their rights regarding services for their child.

Mistakes happen.

So, how do we work to assure the procedures are solid and that all stakeholders are informed and prepared to welcome new students this school year?

One suggestion is to provide ongoing professional learning for educators around enrollment procedures—especially for those with whom the families may come in contact first (e.g., school secretaries, paraprofessionals).

Violation 2: Providing Appropriate Language Support

The second violation revolves around students who are eligible for language support programs and classes in which they’re enrolled. The type of language support offered is directly related to the types of programs offered. Here are some of the program types that may be available:

  • English Language Development (ELD)
  • English as a Second Language (ESL)
  • Sheltered Instruction
  • Bilingual Education
  • Transitional Bilingual
  • Dual Language

Schools and districts may offer one or a combination of any the aforementioned models. Ultimately, the program(s) must adhere to the mandates outlined by the USDOE OELA. Castañeda v. Pickard mandates a three-part criteria to assure that programs for English learners encompass the following:

  1. The educational theory underlying the language assistance program is recognized as sound by some experts in the field or is considered a legitimate experimental strategy.
  2. The program and practices used by the school system are reasonably calculated to implement effectively the educational theory adopted by the school.
  3. The program succeeds, after a legitimate trial, in producing results indicating that students’ language barriers are actually being overcome within a reasonable period of time.

Once students are identified as eligible for language support services, it is important that they receive that support—but, sometimes, such students are not placed in the programs.

Ask yourself these questions:

  1. What language programs does your school and/or district offer?
  2. Could you fully describe them if asked?
  3. Could other educators you work with fully describe the program(s)?
  4. Who is directly and indirectly involved?
  5. Most important, what are the implications of placement?

Violation Scenario: “Now What?”

A family enrolls their child, an 8 year old, into a U.S. public school for the first time. They indicate they speak Arabic and English at home. The child is screened for his level of English proficiency and is eligible for language support. The parents are notified that their child is eligible for language support services. This school does not have an English/Arabic bilingual program model; they offer a daily segment of ESL. The parents sign the required documents and assume their child will be placed into an English language support program. But, the child is never placed into a language support program and instead is placed in a general education third-grade class.

Ask yourself these questions:

  1. What happens now?
  2. What was supposed to happen, and why might the process have failed?
  3. Depending on your role, what would you do?

It is just as important to prepare for new students as it is to prepare for the process by which new students and their families are welcomed into our learning communities. How prepared do you feel you are? How prepared do you feel your school is?

September’s blog will focus a bit more on program models and how we can design and sustain them for linguistically diverse learners.

About Ayanna Cooper

Ayanna Cooper
Ayanna Cooper, EdD, is a consultant, author, keynote speaker, and advocate for culturally and linguistically diverse learners. As owner of ACooper Consulting, she provides technical assistance to state departments of education and other clients with the goal of improving outcomes for students. She emphasizes the importance of building capacity to develop and sustain English language programs, use English language proficiency data, and improve instructional practices. She is currently serving on the TESOL Board of Directors.
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