05/01/2013

More discrimination found in Louisiana school district at center of SPLC civil rights complaint, federal investigation

A Louisiana school district at the center of a federal civil rights investigation prematurely pushes students out of classes for English language learners and ultimately “stifles educational opportunities” for these students, according to new findings uncovered by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Among the findings in the Jefferson Parish Public School System, students who could not fluently read or write in English were removed from the English as a Second Language (ESL) program if they could converse in English. These violations of federal civil rights law were added to an existing SPLC federal complaint against the school district today. 

The original complaint, which described widespread discrimination against Latino students and their families, sparked a joint investigation by the U.S. Departments of Education and Justice shortly after it was filed in August. That investigation is ongoing.

“Every student has a right to an equal opportunity to learn in school,” said Jennifer Coco, staff attorney for the SPLC’s Louisiana office. “The treatment of Latino students in the Jefferson Parish Public School System violates this basic right and creates a major obstacle for future success, for both the students involved and for the communities of Jefferson Parish.”

The Equal Educational Opportunities Act requires all school districts to take appropriate action to help non-English speaking students overcome language barriers.

The SPLC’s findings include a study of the school district’s ESL program. The study, written by Gerardo R. López, Ph.D., an education equity expert at Loyola University New Orleans, found that students are often quickly removed from ESL programs “only to find themselves struggling in academic areas down the road.”

López added: “A disturbing trend is that students are being promoted to the next grade level (and to the next successive course) when they are barely passing their coursework at the most basic/rudimentary level of understanding. This practice ultimately sets up students for academic difficulty and possible failure in subsequent school years.”

The SPLC’s findings also include accounts by students in the district. Y.A., a West Jefferson High School student, was removed from ESL class and told she didn’t need it anymore because she “spoke English.” Yet, her test scores showed that she was barely able to read or write in English. Without becoming fully proficient in English, Y.A. has failed multiple classes and hasn’t passed any of her standardized state tests.  

López found that the district “clearly struggles” to show that LEP students are making annual yearly progress and faces “significant challenges in ensuring all LEP students perform at satisfactory levels on state tests.” The study also found that the district does not have enough teachers certified to teach English as a Second Language classes. The district also may not be enrolling many of the students that need these classes.

“[I]t is my professional opinion that [the Jefferson Parish Public School System] stifles the educational opportunities of English Language Learners enrolled in the district,” López wrote.

He added: “This leaves LEP students at a disadvantage when it comes to preparation for higher education, as well preparing them with the skills and credentials necessary for gainful employment in today’s workforce.”