USDOE Civil Rights report puts focus on improving ELL programs in Jersey City Public Schools

Following an investigation by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights, which pre-dates Superintendent Dr. Marcia Lyles’ arrival, Jersey City Public Schools have signed a Resolution Agreement that mandates the district implement specific remedies to improve its English Language Learners (ELL) program.

Jersey City Public Schools

To protect the civil rights of affected students, the school district is assuring it will significantly improve its English Language Learners (ELL) program, under a consent decree Superintendent of Schools Dr. Marcia Lyles signed with the U.S. Department of Education (USDOE) in December.

The pledge comes after a two-year comprehensive review of ELL offerings and cited practices that the USDOE contends are discriminatory, compared to the rest of the student population.

Concerns raised include placing ELL students in separate and unequal facilities, limiting access to specialized programs compared to non-ELL students, and narrowing the inclusion of ELL students in the district’s Alternative Language Program (ALP) through asking improper questions on a survey parents of potential candidates must take in determining potential placement.

Lyles, however, insisted test results have showed dedicated ELL teachers are making significant strides in improving English speaking skills before deficiencies were cited. The investigation, initiated in May 2012, pre-dated Lyles’ arrival. It evaluated the 2011-12 and 2012-13 school years at all 38 schools. Lyles took office effective September 2012.

As part of its investigation, the Office of Civil Rights (OCR) interviewed teachers and other staff members.

The district is not contesting the findings. It opted to forego what could have been a more contentious process entailing litigation. Instead, it agreed to make the recommended improvements in 17 areas to avoid losing federal aid.

The district says it started implementing some of the department’s recommended remedies last Jan. 31, based on an agreement Lyles signed Dec. 22 – to be monitored by Timothy Blanchard, head of USDOE’s New York district office.

The department’s Resolution Agreement contains a series of action items and reporting dates beginning Jan. 31, 2015. Other target dates are June 30, 2015, July 15, 2015, Sept. 30, 2015, and June 30, 2016. Thus, the district must be in full compliance by the end of the 2015-16 school year.

The district must meet certain reporting requirements to prove it has implemented the changes by the various deadlines through the end of 2015-16, while OCR continues to closely monitor compliance.

The OCR, while acknowledging the district bases its ELL programs on a solid educational foundation, still claimed in its report that local administrators implemented certain components in ways violating Title VI of the U.S. Civil Rights Act of 1964.

The law bars government agencies using federal funds from engaging in discrimination and subjects those that do to possible loss of funding.

According to a statement put out by the district, “Overview of The Resolution Agreement,” the USDOE launched its inquiry in May 2012 in response to an analysis showing there was “an achievement gap” between city ELL and non-ELL students.

“The district worked cooperatively with the OCR, provided voluminous documentation and entered into a conciliation agreement addressing the OCR concerns,” the overview says.

It points out that “the district’s Bilingual/ESL (English as a Second Language) programs currently service 2,583 students who speak over 45 different languages through a series of different programs designed to meet their educational needs.”

The programs range from full and part-time self-contained bilingual instruction, to high intensity English as a Second Language instruction, to port-of-entry programs that service students who are determined to be over age but who may have never attended school before.

These ALPs are based on determining factors such as current English language fluency and a student’s individual needs, though not all ELL students are placed in them.

In highlighting Jersey City’s successes, the district’s overview asserts, “This wide range of programs has resulted in the district’s ELL students outperforming ELL students throughout the State of New Jersey. In fact, in 2013 the district students outperformed the state in every area except Grade 11 Math with a difference of nearly 19 points in Grade 3 Language Arts Literacy.”

“Nevertheless,” the statement concedes, “there is still work to be done, and the district must and will continue to improve the provision of services in order to close the achievement gap between ELL and non-ELL students.”

Despite the problems, the department seems to feel the district will put its best foot forward trying to correct them, stating in its response, “OCR appreciates the district’s full cooperation from the outset, its proactive effort to date and its commitment to addressing the finding of the investigation.”

“Compliance concerns” cited in the 27-page report – and some of the district’s remedies implemented Jan. 31 under the Resolution Agreement, which OCR must verify in the future to avoid penalties, include:

● Implementation of its Alternative Language Program (ALP).

The district ensures it has developed an ALP in line with Title VI’s requirements and implementing regulations. The district has made sure it has developed an ALP providing for the provision of English language services for all ELL students in all educational settings, including special education. The program includes a policy and procedure for how the system is serving affected students by proficiency level and grade level (i.e. elementary, middle and high schools).

● Evaluation of its ELL program.

The district has developed a procedure to measure the effectiveness of its ALP. This includes the evaluation of its chosen ALP in ways comparing ELL students to non-ELL students, and ELL students in the ALP vs those ELL students not in the program. The district must measure effectiveness in terms of student performance, proficiency levels, attendance and graduation rates.

● Exiting and monitoring of ELL students from ALP.

The district has identified and described the criteria it is using to determine when an ELL student attains sufficient English proficiency to exit an ALP. At a minimum, the criteria provides basing the determination of English language proficiency on an objective standard in applying proficiency test scores equally to all students in demonstrating the standard. The standard must prove students are participating meaningfully in the regular classroom. This standard must also show exiting ELL students are exhibiting English reading, writing and comprehension skills that indicate they can participate in the regular instruction program. OCR complained the district has been using test scores attained a year prior to a child;s exiting when it needed to use scores attained on the applicable standardized test at a later date prior to their being evaluated for exiting an ALP.

● Communication with LEP (Limited English Proficiency) parents/guardians.

The district has implemented its policies and procedures assuring the national origin LEP parents are notified, in languages understood by their parents, of school activity and other information and matters which are called to the attention of the other parents. Specifically, the system has revised its procedures to assure they will specify how it will provide interpreters and written translation to LEP parents, including parents from “less predominant language groups,” and must meet numerous other requirements to better reach these parents.

● Exclusion of ELL students from certain specialized programs.

The district has reviewed participation of its ELL students in its specialized programs (such as gifted and talented, International Baccalaureate, academic academies and any other specialized programs and activities). In doing so, it has included, at a minimum, an assessment of whether any policies, procedures and practices preclude or otherwise limit ELL students from participating in the district’s specialized programs, the methods used to disseminate information, including the languages used, the methods used to recruit participants, and a student survey of all current and exited ELL students regarding their interest in the district’s specialized programs and extracurricular activities.

● Evaluation and placement of ELL students with disabilities.

The district is ensuring that students classified as disabled under federal law are being appropriately evaluated, placed and provided, as appropriate, with accommodations for special education and are receiving related aids and services as well as being provided alternative language services. The district has also assured its policies are not misplacing children as special ed students and that those in special ed are not being denied services offered to other students because they are ELL students.

● Providing ELL services “in the least segregative manner possible.”

The system has reviewed its ELL programs and developed a plan ensuring it is providing programs in the “least segregative manner,” consistent with achieving its stated goals, and identified modifications it will make to minimize segregation to the greatest extent possible. The system is providing OCR documentation outlining any changes made in its ELL program regarding reducing “separation” between ELL and non-ELL students. For any ELL program that remains separated from the general education program, the district has outlined the reasons for the need to do so in such facilities and described whether it considered any alternatives (for example, participation with the general education population in art, music, gym and other specials).

“The district expressed its interest in resolving these compliance concerns, and any remaining issue, without further investigation,” USDOE noted in its response.

Lyles told Real Jersey City that the district’s ELL challenges are not unique. She said, “The Office of Civil Rights has just in the last few months started to provide states and districts across the country guidance in how to better support English Language Learners.”

“I do not believe that the report said what we were doing was all wrong – how could that be with our continued progress in the ELL performance?” the superintendent added.

“There are some practices we had already implemented, there are those that we utilized but did not document,” she said.

Her spokeswoman, Chief of Staff Dr. Maryann Dickar, assured that the district takes the OCR’s findings “very seriously” as part of its continuing commitment “to provide (programs of) excellence and equity” to all students.

But Lyles’ aide asserted the record shows the state’s second largest school system has been proactive in upgrading ELL programs before and during the OCR review.

“For example, two years ago we started offering Bi-Lingual honors classes at MS 7, one of our Bi-lingual hubs,” she stated in an email. “We have also introduced translation services in all languages including American Sign Language so that schools can better communicate with non-English speakers.”

Dickar also maintained the OCR’s report did not question “the overall effectiveness” of the district’s ELL services because test results have shown the school system has consistently outperformed the state, making greater than average gains for most tested grades.

Freshman Board of Education Member Lorenzo Richardson, usually one of the board’s most vociferous Lyles critics, said in response to the OCR report, “Clearly, the problems troubling ELL started before Dr. Lyles’ tenure and I am glad to see they are finally starting to be addressed through solutions which either have been implemented or are in the process of being implemented.”

“Providing equal educational opportunities to every child in this district is my top priority,” added Richardson, “and clearly, we must do better addressing the needs of parents and children in our ELL programs. These changes are long overdue.”

However, Richardson alleged there was at least one transparency issue he found in terms of how the administration handled the report’s release.

“I was prepared to issue a statement to the public on the report as early as the board’s February meeting,” he said, “But the district’s two attorneys, the superintendent and some other board members looked at me with expressions of concern indicating that I not go there and I was stopped. But why? Why the delay in engaging with the public?

“The fact is, Dr. Lyles signed the agreement with the federal government two months earlier, and there was absolutely nothing that had to be held back from the community due to concerns over potential litigation by that time.”

In response, Lyles said “it would not be my place to comment on a board member’s comments.”

Chris Neidenberg is a freelance reporter who can be reached via email at neiden4@aol.com.

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