While insisting that it did nothing wrong, a Central Valley school district has quickly settled a lawsuit filed by several chapters of the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of a half-dozen parents and teachers who charged that the district had adopted a destructive program for English learners, which the state, in turn, failed to monitor.
Mark Rosenbaum, chief counsel of the ACLU of Southern California, vowed Friday that it would be filing similar suits in order to force the state Department of Education to fix flawed programs that other districts offer English learners.
Under the terms of a settlement released last week, Dinuba Unified has agreed to immediately replace the controversial reading program, Second Language Acquisition Development Instruction, or SLADI, to hire two English language learning consultants suggested by the plaintiffs, and to offer after-school and summer interventions for students who had been assigned SLADI. The unorthodox program, which the district first tried in 2007, takes a grammar- and spelling-intensive approach to learning English. It started with first and second graders, who were pulled out of class for 2½ hours daily for the first half of the year to study parts of speech and learn sentence construction. Rosenbaum likened it to teaching swimming by memorizing the chemistry of water. Teachers and parents who sued said that children fell behind their classmates in reading and were denied exposure to literature and vocabulary. The settlement says that the age-appropriate replacement programs will be designed to “to enhance oral language skills, written language skills, comprehension and access to core curriculum, as well as to integrate ELL students to the fullest extent possible.”
Nonetheless, in a YouTube video and press release, Superintendent Joe Hernandez defended SLADI, which he said brought “great results,” and led two of five elementary schools to raise scores enough to escape penalties of Program Improvement status under the No Child Left Behind law. He dismissed the suit as a philosophical disagreement and implied the only reason the district is settling is to escape $1 million in expenses from a protracted legal fight. (The district has agreed to pay plaintiffs’ attorneys $142,000 in fees and costs anyway.)
“People can always fight about philosophy, but we know the real factors in the success of our students are the quality of our teachers and the resources we can devote to them,” Hernandez said. At the same time, he acknowledged that the district already had “formed a teacher-based committee to recommend improvements to its program,” and planned to go before the school board when the lawsuit was filed at the end of May.
According to the lawsuit, however, teachers had expressed clear dissatisfaction with SLADI. In the fall of 2011, the Executive Board of the Dinuba Teachers Assn. sent a statement to the district stating, “Teachers within our association have determined that this program is ineffective” and that “teachers have ethical and moral issues with this program.” A month before the lawsuit was filed, the full Association condemned SLADI as a “backwards model that could prove detrimental” to students and criticized the district for adopting a program that defied accepted research.
Rosenbaum said the district would be hard-pressed to find one teacher who defended the program.
Dinuba is a 6,000-student K-12 district serving the 24,000-population city of the same name located east of Route 99, midway between Fresno and Visalia. More than 90 percent of Dinuba Unified students are Hispanic and about one third are English learners.
Since Dinuba Unified was in Program Improvement as a district, the state had to sign off on the program that the district adopted for English learners. In rubber stamping SLADI, the state was derelict of its oversight responsibilities, the lawsuit said.
“This is a good example of why the state needs to be involved,” said Rosenbaum, accusing the state of an “abject failure to aggressively enforce the State Constitution (with its requirement for equal educational opportunity) and federal mandates.” The rapid out-of-court settlement left the ACLU without a chance to pursue action against the state, for now.
Recognizing that the quality of programs for English learners varies widely and standards for classifying and reintegrating English learners are inconsistent, Sen. Alex Padilla, a Los Angeles Democrat, proposed two bills this year. SB 1108 would require districts and county offices to report the criteria they use for redesignating English learners as proficient in English to the State Department of Education, which would then made recommendations to the Legislature; that bill appears headed toward passage. But SB 1109, which would have established a master plan for English learners – looking at best practices and techniques for instruction, parent involvement, and the long-term learning needs of English learners – died in Senate Appropriations.