U.S. Dept. of Education Investigates L.A. Unified English Learner Program

US Sec. of Education Arne Duncan (L) joins LA Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and LA Unified officials to announce an overhaul to the program that educates more than 200,000 English learner students at the school district.

The US Secretary of Education, his deputy for civil rights, L.A.'s Mayor, and L.A. Unified's superintendent and board members crowded around a podium in a conference room at school district headquarters on Tuesday. They were there to focus on the positive, how to better serve a large proportion of its students, those whose first language isn't English. In L.A. Unified that means Mexican and Central American immigrants or the sons and grand kids of those immigrants.

For a year and a half the department's Office of Civil Rights had been investigating whether the school district's massive English Learner program was adequately teaching the district's two hundred thousand-plus non-native English speakers.

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U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan made the strongest, albeit vague, statement about the deficiencies of L.A. Unified's English learner program. "In education, too few public school students who are not native English speakers learn English well enough or fast enough to prepare them for other core academic coursework or for life after the school age years," Duncan told board members at the public board meeting before they adjourned for a press conference on the topic.

The results of the investigation: better evaluation and monitoring are needed, along with stronger intervention when English learner students begin to fall behind or fail to transition out of English learner classes.

L.A. Unified Superintendent John Deasy said the district decided to work with federal investigators when the probe began a year and a half ago. "We did not spend time or months arguing if there was a problem and we didn't spend time or months for who was at fault for issues," Deasy said.

The school district surveys students to find out which learn another language at home besides English. All three of Jeanette Godina's kids did. She lives in Huntington Park, she was born in this country, as were her kids, all classified as English learners. The program, she said, is not helping them get ahead. "For so many years we have so many English learners who are long term, and they're not kids who were born in Mexico, they're kids who were born here, they're American citizens, and how could it be that our American citizens are falling back," Godina said.

The district agreed to let the U.S. Department of Education monitor its progress toward giving English learners enough basic skills for a job, and in the rosiest of scenarios, prepare them for college.

Poet and Journalist Adolfo Guzman-Lopez writes his column Movie Miento every week on KCET's SoCal Focus blog. It is a poetic exploration of Los Angeles history, Latino culture and the overall sense of place, darting across LA's physical and psychic borders.

About the Author

Adolfo’s been a reporter at NPR affiliate KPCC since 2000. He’s reported on three L.A. mayors, four L.A. Unified superintendents, and covered the LAPD batons and rubber bullets flying at the May, 2007 MacArthur Park immigrant marc...
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