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Promises, Promises… Fed Up With Broken Promises, Double Talk

Fed Up With Broken Promises, Double Talk

Myriam Marquez

October 1, 2002
Copyright © 2002 Orlando Sentinel. All rights reserved.

Hispanic parents have been taken for suckers. Again. For the third time in two years, the state has found the Orange County school district thumbing its nose at a federal order designed to help kids learn English.

Worse, district officials played politics. Apparently, they feared that the state's latest findings would anger Hispanic voters already frustrated by years of School Board stonewalling. So shortly before Orange County voters went to the polls to decide on the half-penny sales-tax hike to build and repair schools, district officials sallied over to Tallahassee to promise to do better. Two weeks after the county vote, state officials released their findings. How convenient.

Voters passed the tax, but the district clearly has flunked the smell test. And now it's trying to renege on the promises it made to state education officials.

The weekend before the Sept. 10 vote, I asked district officials, who were attending a conference, about the DOE investigation. They said they were waiting. Turns out they had been to Tally Aug. 21 to put the fix in.

How many more audits will it take before the state realizes the district isn't acting in good faith?

How many millions of dollars in federal funds does the district want to jeopardize?

Florida's Department of Education already has warned the district that the new federal No Child Left Behind Act requires districts to work with parents -- in this case, the Parent Leadership Council that represents the families of students not yet fluent in English. Otherwise, no federal money will come this way.

About one-fifth of Orange County's students are learning English for the first time. Most are Hispanic students, and there are economies of scale that can be achieved to teach kids in tried-and-tested bilingual programs that result in English literacy.

Where's the federal money going?

The district mostly offers English for speakers of other languages, or ESOL, programs that require teachers to use their hands, pictures and other methods to communicate with students. Hardly high tech. ESOL is allowed under the federal agreement hatched a decade ago to ensure comprehensible instruction for Florida's students and to settle a costly class-action lawsuit. But state and district officials also note, backed by research, that ESOL is not the ideal way to achieve English literacy.

When more than 15 students who speak the same foreign language are in a class, there must be a bilingual teacher or at a minimum, an aide fluent in both languages. Two previous audits found various schools ignored that state rule.

This time, the PLC asked the state to investigate changes made by Ruth Perez Christian, area superintendent for east Orange County schools. She got rid of transitional bilingual programs in one elementary school and moved students in three other schools to self-contained classes. There may not have been sufficient bilingual teachers or aides. The district PLC was never consulted and some parents said they were left in the dark about other programs -- both violations of district policy and the federal order.

Clearly, the current system of having five area superintendents doing their own thing hinders progress. District officials promised the state they would centralize all programs for "language enriched pupils" learning English. Yet last week state officials warned Superintendent Ron Blocker that his written action plan does not jibe with the promises district officials made before Orange County's Big Tax Vote. "Uniformity and equal access to such services . . . would continue to be questionable," state DOE lawyer Daniel Woodring wrote.

Deborah Manuel, a deputy superintendent Blocker tapped to help fix the problems, said Monday the district has made the proper changes, and that "it's now with the lawyers. We feel we are in compliance."

So now we have a standoff. More talk of meetings, more compiling of studies, more blah, blah, blah.

The district also promised forums for parents to learn about all available programs. Swell, except the state noted that the district sidestepped the county's PLC to plan those forums -- another violation. "They don't want to hear what parents think," Evelyn Rivera, who heads the PLC, said of district officials. "They just want a rubber stamp."

Even as district officials double-talked their way back from Tallahassee, Rivera was stumping for the half-cent tax. I quoted her in a column right before the vote. She could have hammered officials about its looming east-side debacle. Instead she put the students' needs ahead of her ego. Too bad district officials won't do the same.

What does Jeb Bush, the Education Governor, plan to do about the district's three failed audits in little more than two years?

Three strikes, and the district still plays head games with kids. It's not right.


Promises, Promises

October 4, 2002
Copyright © 2002 Orlando Sentinel. All rights reserved.

Our position: Orange County is deficient in teaching English to kids who don't speak it.

Hispanic parents in Orange County are tired of excuses, delays and broken promises.

They want action. Like any parents, they want their kids to have solid reading skills in English as early as possible so they can move on to learn history, science, social studies and other subjects. Instead, parents encounter bureaucratic roadblocks from the Orange County school district.

Indeed, for the third time in three years, the state points to shortcomings in the school district's programs for students learning English. The state wants the district to create a centralized structure so that the programs are delivered uniformly countywide -- a smart strategy that district officials seemed to embrace at a meeting with state officials last month.

But now School Board Attorney Frank Kruppenbacher has fired off a letter to state education officials dismissing that promise. He says the district's decentralized strategy will deliver uniform results.

No wonder the Parent Leadership Council, the group that represents the families of students not fluent in English, keeps taking its complaints to the state instead of dealing directly with the district.

Meanwhile, thousands of children wait for the most important promise to be kept -- the promise that they'll be taught in a way that produces results. According to the district, little more than a third of its students who formerly took language-enrichment classes passed the state reading test this year.

The stakes are high not only for Hispanic students, but also for Haitian, Vietnamese, Brazilian and other children who arrive with little or no English knowledge. They are one-fifth of the district's students. The state now has high expectations for them. After only two years in language-enriched programs, they will be expected to pass the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test.

The district would do well to try harder to repair its fractured relationship with the PLC -- a relationship required by a 12-year-old federal order designed to help Florida's kids learn English, by the state and by the district's own language-enrichment plan. Working with the district, the parent group could invest its passion into reinforcing classroom instruction and helping children become literate in English more quickly.

District officials promise to do better in involving parents. They promise to keep a tighter rein on administrators who play key roles in bilingual instruction. They promise to provide the kind of instruction that research shows works best.

Promises, promises.

The only thing that matters to parents right now is action, and a centralized system is a good first step. Come FCAT time, the only thing that will matter is results.

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