St. Paul faults immigrant student's instruction
ST. PAUL — A finding of discrimination against a Karen immigrant student is the latest strike against a St. Paul Public Schools equity initiative that pushed English-learning students into mainstream classes without language assistance.
The St. Paul Department of Human Rights and Equal Economic Opportunity issued a finding of probable cause last month that the district violated the city's human rights ordinance by discriminating against a Como Park Senior High student because of his national origin.
The city office said that by failing to provide support in the form of an English-language teacher, the district denied the student an equal opportunity to a free education. The district also failed to accommodate the student's disability by delaying an evaluation and then deciding he did not need services, the city said.
Jane Sommerville filed the complaint in April 2015 on her stepson's behalf. She has spoken out about her stepson's education in the past but declined to comment Friday.
A conciliation meeting was scheduled for late last month but a settlement was not reached.
The case involves just one student but has implications for the roughly one-third of students in the district who are categorized as English Language Learners.
According to case documents, students who were still developing their English language skills — those rated at WIDA Level 3 of 6 — were moved out of sheltered classes with language help in 2013-14 and into regular classes alongside native speakers.
Only select classes at certain schools offered an English-language co-teacher for those core classes.
Teachers complained that the move was especially hard on students who, like Sommerville's stepson, came to the country with little or interrupted schooling. A 10th-grader at the time of the change, he was reading at a second-grade level.
"It's essentially a sink-or-swim mentality," Sommerville, a former teacher of English learners, said in a 2015 interview. "They're being mainstreamed with no support."
Sommerville elected to hold her stepson back in Level 2 classes so he would have the language support she felt he needed. The district later established a Level 2.5 for Como but no other school.
The district said in an email Friday that their current training plan will ensure "all teachers, counselors and administrators receive substantial training in (English learner) language acquisition practices and culturally relevant pedagogy."
In defense of the mainstreaming initiative, Efe Agbamu, then the assistant superintendent of mulitlingual learning, has said that keeping students for years in sheltered classes prevents them from learning the core academic content they need.
Sheltered classes also don't offer the credits needed to graduate high school. Mainstream courses give English learners a shot at earning a diploma before they get too old for public school.
But in a January compliance review, the Minnesota Department of Education, too, found the district was not providing enough language support for English learners at Levels 3-5.
District leaders said in response that they would look to rebalance staff so that teachers of English learners would spend more time with the more advanced students.
Besides unmet language needs, Sommerville suspected her stepson had a disability and asked the district in February 2014 for an assessment. She was told to have him assessed instead by his doctor, who diagnosed him with attention deficit disorder.
The district finally did assess her stepson in October 2014 and concluded he did not qualify for special-education services because he was performing well enough in school.
The city human rights office found the district had a practice of waiting until an immigrant student had been in the country for three years before conducting a special-education assessment.
The district said Friday that while some educators believe there is a three-year wait policy, that's not the case. However, the district does take its time to make sure they don't mistake a child's poor English skills for a disability.
"With students who are new to the country and have limited levels of English, schools needs to differentiate the extent to which a student is struggling to learn because of their limited English versus possibly having a disability," the district said.