Federal Probe Finds Los Angeles Schools Shortchange Black & Brown Students

Posted on October 20, 2011 by

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LOS ANGELES-A federal investigation into whether Los Angeles students are denied educational opportunities has prompted the school system to overhaul its approach to teaching immigrant and black students, federal and city officials said Tuesday, October 11.

The investigation was part of a probe by the U.S. Department of Education into whether 76 public school districts nationwide comply with civil rights law.

Among the findings, the department concluded that the Los Angeles Unified School District was classifying students as proficient in English though they couldn’t speak the language, federal officials told The Wall Street Journal. “Those students had been languishing in limbo,” said Russlynn Ali, the U.S. Department of Education assistant secretary for civil rights.

The investigation also found that black students have limited access to technology and library resources. In addition, black students “were subject to unfair discipline,” Ms. Ali said, and had higher suspension and expulsion rates than other students.

Under its pact with the Education Department, Los Angeles agreed to boost college preparatory services for minority students and improve English training for students whose first language isn’t English, according to a copy of the agreement.

The agreement also includes extra training for teachers, and outreach to parents whose children are learning English. In addition, it calls for a greater effort to identify black students who are eligible for the district’s special programs for talented and gifted students.

The Education Department launched the probe last year, at first to determine if students who entered school speaking limited English, most of whom are Latino, were receiving adequate instruction. The nation’s second-largest school system has more students learning English, about 195,000, than any other in the United States — about 29% of the district’s overall enrollment. Later, at the urging of local activists, investigators widened the probe to include black students, who make up about 10% of the district’s enrollment.

Black students were not part of the initial inquiry, but were added to placate activists, who pointed out that African American students were, by some measures, performing at lower levels than Latino students. (V&V note: It is still true — The wheel that squeaks gets the oil!)

For that part of the inquiry, investigators compared resources at schools that serve a substantially black enrollment with those that serve a substantially white student body. They found disparities in technology and library resources, among other things.

“We saw libraries that were woefully resourced,” Ali said. “Books that weren’t there that were supposed to be; books that were there and not recorded.”

Like many of America’s school districts, Los Angeles has been forced to severely cut its budget, end programs and lay off teachers as state political leaders are deadlocked in a budget battle that will likely bring more cuts to education next year.

More than 200,000 of the district’s 671,648 students are classified as “English language learners,” meaning they need help learning English. The district has more than 60,000 black students.

Ms. Russlynn Ali

This probe of L.A. schools took place under the direction of Ms. Russlynn Ali, a youthful Black woman, assistant secretary of the U.S. Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR), who oversees the enforcement of all anti-discrimination laws related to education. She investigates schools and districts nationwide to ensure equitable conduct across race, gender, national origin and disability. It’s the same position once occupied in 1982 by conservative Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. But over the past two years Ali, 40, has elevated the office’s work to new heights.

While previous OCR leaders have relied on filed complaints to launch probes, Ali has proactively opened 60 investigations based on the agency’s own research. That’s in addition to nearly 7,000 complaints recorded last year, the most in Education Department history. Of the thousands of cases handled in the first year under the Obama administration, resolution agreements increased by 11 percent. Voluntary resolutions, in which schools made sufficient changes without additional prodding, jumped 32 percent.

“My sense of urgency could not be greater,” Ali says. “We’re talking about questions of fundamental fairness — issues that have always played out in our schools. Our kids can’t succeed if we don’t give them the tools they need. No matter where you sit on the political spectrum, how could we not?”

 “I am acutely aware that poor kids and kids of color get less of everything that research says makes a difference,” Ali said. “Many believe that, because we give them less of everything, we shouldn’t stretch poor kids or kids of color, or their teachers, very far. … But, in the end, I will stand with the black and brown parents . . . because they know their kids have to demonstrate higher levels of knowledge and skills to pursue their dreams.”

(V&V note: One thing that this situation – and others like it – ought to tell us once again is that we need to take charge of the education of our children to the fullest extent possible, enlisting every conscious, competent, pro-active resource available, like it’s a declaration of war!!!)

Compiled from reports by Tamara Audi (Wall Street Journal—10/12/11) and Howard Blume (LA Times 10/11/11) and additional resources.

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