Civil rights groups are accusing the state of violating the constitutional rights of English learners in the Dinuba Unified School District by implementing a program that bars first- and second-grade non-English-speaking students from reading classes.
District teachers and parents say the program, called Structured Language Acquisition Development Instruction, requires first- and second-grade English learners to deconstruct complex sentences and memorize formal parts of speech before they have been taught basic reading skills.
While other first- and second-graders are given books and taught how to read, English learners at Dinuba are excluded from that course work for the first half of the school year. When English learners are allowed to join the reading classes during the second half of the year, they are considerably behind the rest of the students, parents and teachers say.
Last week, three chapters of the ACLU, the California Rural Legal Assistance Inc., the Asian Pacific American Legal Center, and the law firm of Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati filed a lawsuit against the California Department of Education, the State Board of Education and State Superintendent Tom Torlakson, charging the state with allowing a "fundamentally flawed and unproven method of teaching English" to be taught at Dinuba Unified.
The lawsuit targets district and state education officials because a special team of state reviewers approved and supervised Dinuba's program. English learners' test scores have gotten worse since the initiative was implemented in 2009, the suit alleges.
One section of the complaint states:
This failure on the part of the State is violative of its constitutional and statutory duties to
ensure basic equality to all public school students, and representative of the State’s wholesale failure to properly superintend and monitor the delivery of sound educational ELL instruction to students throughout California.
It is both tragic and inexplicable that California’s governmental entities charged with the duty to enforce the fundamental right of education that our Constitution enshrines have not
developed, let alone enforced, a set of policies, practices, and protocols that would correct the abysmal record of districts across California when it comes to teaching ELL children basic literacy skills and core curriculum, beginning with learning how to speak, read, and write in English.
Dinuba Unified superintendent Joe Hernandez declined to comment on the lawsuit, but said the district is talking with civil rights attorneys about the allegations.
"We always take any concerns about the education of our students very seriously, whether expressed in a lawsuit or when raised by parents or teachers," Hernandez said in a statement.
Tina Jung, spokeswoman for the California Department of Education, said officials were still reviewing the lawsuit, but stressed that during Torlakson's stint as state superintendent, state officials have worked hard to help districts meet the needs of English learners.
"It is unfortunate that the parties chose to file suit rather than making a good-faith effort to meet with state officials to address their concerns," Jung said.
However, a May 22 letter to Hernandez and Torlakson shows the civil rights attorneys urged the state to intervene in Dinuba. The letter warned a lawsuit would be filed if action wasn't taken by May 29. The state never responded, said Jory Steele, managing attorney for ACLU's Northern California office.
Dinuba Unified, with 6,150 students, is located in the state's Central Valley. Approximately 30 percent of the district's students are not native English speakers, according to state education department statistics.
“For young children, learning to read is the foundation for lifelong learning," said Nona Rhea, a teacher at Dinuba Unified and a plaintiff in the lawsuit. "It’s been heartbreaking to watch students in my school lose so many valuable hours of learning to this flawed method. I want to make sure all our kids have the same opportunities for the education they deserve.”
In April, the Dinuba Teachers Association voted to formally oppose the district's program, said Annie Ogata, co-president of the association.
"This lawsuit is our last resort,” Ogata stated.
If successful, the lawsuit would have widespread ramifications. California schools have roughly 1.6 million students categorized as English learners. The suit comes amid growing scrutiny of the effort to educate English-learners in California.
Last year, the Los Angeles Unified School District, the nation's second-largest school district, agreed to overhaul its program for non-English speaking students after civil rights investigators at the U.S. Department of Education found that many English learners were never becoming fluent in English and were being shut out of classes needed for graduation. The voluntary settlement was one of the first for the federal department under the Obama administration and was touted as groundbreaking.