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English learners lawsuit could affect California school districts

May 30, 2012 |  1:30 pm

State officials are neglecting their legal obligation to ensure English learners are receiving an adequate and equal education, says a lawsuit filed Wednesday by advocates that include the ACLU of Southern California.

The focus of the litigation is a small school system near Fresno, but the ramifications are much wider, with the potential to affect English learners statewide and to compel the California Department of Education to aggressively enforce state law.

The suit claims the Dinuba Unified School District in Tulare County is using a substandard, unproven curriculum in a misguided effort to improve the lagging performance of students who have yet to master English.

For the last three years, children in Dinuba “have been subjected to a program ... that lacks sound educational support, contradicts bedrock principles of how children learn language, and continues to be resisted vigorously by their knowledgeable and caring teachers,” according to the suit, which was filed in Sacramento.

The program called Second Language Acquisition Development Instruction and known by its acronym, SLADI, relies on pulling students out of their regular English classes to provide grammar lessons in English. District officials say SLADI is helping students whose academic shortcomings have been improperly addressed.

“The whole premise of SLADI is that English needs to be taught as a foreign language and that language teaching is designed to specifically help students to understand how English is constructed and used,” the district stated in materials explaining the program.

The district has defended SLADI as “anchored in current empirical research,” which the critics dispute.

On the Dinuba Unified website, Supt. Joe A. Hernandez called the education of English learners “an urgent situation,” especially with the district under state and federal pressure to improve test scores.

“I highly respect our superintendent and our school board president,” said third-grade teacher Nona Rhea, “but we have not been able to convince them that this is not working. No child should be denied part of the [regular] curriculum for half a year, year after year.”

Dinuba has about 6,150 students. About 30% are classified as English learners; about 81% of the total enrollment is Latino in a community known for its fruit orchards.

The state approved Dinuba’s approach, according to the suit, which is a main reason why the state also is being sued.

“No state has a greater stake in the education of children who are learning English as a second language than California,” where 23% of students are learning English, said Mark Rosenbaum, chief counsel for the Southern California ACLU. “Yet no state does a poorer job of educating [these] students to communicate and comprehend English.

The state Education Department has frequently taken a hands-off approach to enforcing many education code provisions, citing a lack of resources and deferring to local authorities.

The suit is being filed on behalf of two unidentified students, two unidentified parents and five teachers, including Rhea. The legal team includes three regional ACLU offices, Asian Pacific American Legal Center in Los Angeles, California Rural Legal Assistance in San Francisco and the Palo Alto firm Wilson, Sonsini, Goodrich & Rosati.

The defendants include Dinuba Unified, members of the state Board of Education and state schools Supt. Tom Torlakson.

Torlakson on Wednesday issued a news release commending the gains of English learners in a recent state assessment, saying these students are “making important strides toward English language fluency.”

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-- Howard Blume

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