Most high schoolers don’t get to watch doctors perform live surgeries in their classrooms or intern at local hospitals.
But students in the Cleveland Metropolitan School District are lucky.
The kids who speak English, anyway.
Not all of the district’s students are proficient in English, but every student, regardless of language ability, is legally entitled to equal resources and opportunities. However, a recent review by the Department of Education found that students in the district who were not fluent in English, most of them Spanish-speakers, were not enrolling at the math-and-science-focused John Hay Cleveland School of Science and Medicine. That’s largely, the department concluded, because the school wasn’t doing a good job of letting the students know they were welcome.
The high school has a competitive application and interview process, but it wasn’t offering its test in Spanish or providing translators for admissions interviews. The department and the district recently reached an agreement which stipulates, among other things, that the school make resources available in multiple languages.
Similar stories are playing out in schools and districts across the country at an increasingly rapid rate.
Nearly five million children, about nine percent of public school students, are not proficient English speakers, according to the Department of Education. Between 2002 and 2011, the percentage of English learners increased in 40 states. Not only is the diversity of public schools around the country continuing to increase, the diversity of English learners themselves is growing.
The students are just as entitled as native English speakers to resources like advanced placement courses and extracurricular opportunities. English learners currently make up five percent of high school students, but just two percent of advanced placement students. They make up 11 percent of the students who are held back a grade.
The “opportunity gap” is real, said Catherine Lhamon, an assistant secretary in the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights, during a call with reporters. “It really feels like the need [for guidance] is mushrooming.”
Since 2009, she said, her department has fielded more than 475 complaints about unequal treatment of English learners. Nineteen states have seen a more than 40 percent increase in the number of English learners since 2004, she said.
Despite the increase in students who are not proficient in English, 475 is “a lot of complaints,” Lhamon said. “We are seeing serious compliance concerns around the country.”
Heeding the increase and the fact that many districts are now coping with this summer’s influx in unaccompanied minors from Central America, the department, in conjunction with the Department of Justice, on Wednesday published guidance for schools on requirements they must meet when educating students who are not fluent in English.
While the department didn’t issue new requirements, it is the first time the government has published the rules, along with a so-called toolkit to help schools identify and educate these students, in one place. Previously, schools have been left to wade through an often-confusing muddle of case law and regulations.
While most complaints end in a voluntary agreement, districts that fail to reach an agreement or fail to make what the government determines to be adequate progress toward a resolution, risk losing federal funding. The Education Department did not immediately respond to a request for information on how frequently funding is revoked.
Most broadly, the report reminds schools and districts that all students, regardless of their language proficiency or immigration status, have the right to an education, and schools must take steps to accommodate such students by teaching them English and providing services in their native languages whenever necessary.
“We cannot reach every single school district,” said Vanita Gupta, acting assistant attorney general in the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, on the call, adding she hopes the new guidance will allow schools and districts to make changes to pre-empt any threats of action by the federal government.
It is “crucial” to the nation’s future, Gupta said, that these students have equal access to good schools.