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By Lori Horvitz | Sentinel Staff Writer
November 13, 2001
Several Orange County schools last year failed to provide enough bilingual instruction for students who don't speak or understand English well, state education officials have concluded.
Some schools didn't have required translators. Others didn't enroll non-English speakers in gifted classes. And several schools didn't provide parents with documents -- such as report cards and testing information -- in the parents' native languages.
The findings are part of an inquiry conducted by the Florida Department of Education this past summer. DOE officials visited 18 schools in June.
It is the second year in a row that state officials have cited Orange County schools for not providing enough services to non-English speakers.
"This is what we have been telling the school district all along," said Evelyn Rivera, an activist who leveled the complaint last spring. "Nothing has changed. It's the same thing over and over again."
In Orange County, where 12 percent of schoolchildren lack proficiency in English, teachers encounter students using at least 147 languages -- from French, Arabic and Chinese to Haitian-Creole, Portuguese, Vietnamese and Native American dialects. The district spends nearly $50 million on programs for English-language learners -- $11 million more than the state gave it.
Nick Gledich, an associate superintendent, said Monday that the district is fixing the problems cited in the DOE report. Also, school officials are deciding whether to expand bilingual programs at some schools, depending on the cost.
"The district will be following through with corrective action at all of the designated schools," he said. "All schools will be told to do the same, if it's needed."
Rivera of Winter Park, along with Radhames Reyes, an Orlando surgeon, and Jose Fernandez of south Orange County, filed a formal complaint with the DOE in April.
They contend that more than 100 public schools here do not offer non-English-speaking students instruction in their native languages in math, science, social studies and computers.
A team of state education officials spent four days here investigating the complaints.
Among the findings:
*There were no teachers assistants to translate for non-English-speaking students at West Ridge and Memorial middle schools and at West Orange and Evans high schools.
Florida schools are required to provide a teacher or assistant teacher proficient in a language spoken by 15 or more non-English-speaking students.
Elaine Scott, principal of Evans High, said she's hiring three assistants for the Haitian Creole- and Spanish-speaking students. She's still trying to find someone to translate for Vietnamese-speaking students.
Gledich said the district has given the schools more money to hire more translators. However, he added, schools sometimes have a tough time finding qualified people for the jobs.
*At West Orange High, more than 50 non-English-speaking students in grades 9-12 were lumped into the same English class. State law requires such students to study English at their grade level.
*Students who are learning English didn't get to enroll in gifted classes at Liberty and Jackson middle schools. Under state rules, these kids are supposed to have access to these classes, even if they don't speak English fluently.
*Several schools didn't print documents, such as report cards, discipline forms or testing information, in parents' native languages. At Cheney Elementary, the principal said that parents would receive letters in English along with a phone number that they could call for translation. DOE officials said that option is not allowed.
DOE officials said they have not finished their inquiry. They plan to return to Orange County later this month to interview more teachers, parents and students. They plan to release a final report in December.
November 13, 2001
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.
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.
November 18, 2001
Our position: The Orange County School Board isn't doing enough for students learning English.
Does the Orange County school district need a translator?
It seems to have a hard time understanding what it should do differently for kids who don't speak or understand English well.
It's disturbing that a recent state investigation found deficiencies in the way the district provided instruction to non-English-speaking kids last year, despite the fact that an earlier state audit found similar problems.
There still were situations, for example, where students at many different learning levels were grouped in one English-instruction class. What's more, some schools still didn't have an adequate system to identify and place gifted students if they didn't speak English.
Even worse, some schools continued to send home information in English to parents who didn't read or speak English.
The School Board appears to be missing in action on this issue. It needs to take charge. It needs to make clear the high priority it puts on having every administrator and teacher in the district know his or her responsibilities to make sure learning is occurring in that program.
If high expectations don't filter down to every classroom, children learning English are left adrift. They don't have the same opportunity to learn math, sciences and the arts that students whose first language is English have.
Younger children have less likelihood of learning to read by nine, and older students are more likely to drop out.
In the early 20th century, it didn't matter as much if non-English-speaking students dropped out of school in frustration. Society didn't expect most students to complete high school, much less college, and dropouts could easily get work in farms or factories or start their own businesses.
But in today's high-tech economy, students who drop out don't have the opportunities to succeed that low-skilled Americans had a century ago. High-school dropouts are the lowest paid members of society, with few opportunities to advance.
No one should underestimate the challenge of reaching English learners. Orange County's students come from 223 countries and speak 143 languages and dialects. Hispanics make up 21.5 percent of the district's student population, but the district also has large populations of students who speak Haitian Creole, Portuguese and Vietnamese.
In addition, experts disagree about the best strategies for grounding students in English, and each side presents good arguments.
But the biggest challenge by far in Orange County is the district's slow-moving bureaucracy, which seems to take forever to filter down expectations to each school.
It's in the district's best interests to move more quickly to help English learners because its academic reputation is at stake. The Hispanic graduation rate in Orange County of 55.4 percent, for example, affects the district's overall rate, which is 59.8 percent.
The problem isn't that the school district is doing nothing about English-language instruction. There's plenty of activity revolving around those programs in Orange County.
Through the years, there have been meetings and more meetings. Today there are programs, teaching models, strategies and superintendent expectations.
The district even has developed a new measuring tool for principals to assess how well individual teachers are delivering English instruction.
All that activity means nothing, however, if accountability doesn't filter down to the classroom -- and soon.
Every day that goes by without a systematic approach to reaching non-English-speaking children is a day that thousands of students fall farther behind.
That shouldn't be hard for the School Board to understand.