Hazleton Area School District has entered into an agreement with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights in response to the district violating the civil rights of English language learner students.
The settlement will bring the district into compliance with Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the OCR announced Friday.
“The Hazleton Area School District’s decision to equalize educational opportunity for its nearly 11,000 students, including its nearly 1,300 English language learner students and their families is a major step forward for the district’s children and families,” assistant secretary for Civil Rights Catherine E. Lhamon said in a news release.
“This agreement protects English language learner students’ longstanding right to equal opportunity to participate in school programs, services and activities. The agreement also ensures that the district provides language assistance services to limited English proficient parents – to support their active participation in their children’s education,” Lhamon said.
The OCR in 2010 initiated an investigation to assess whether English language learner (ELL) students in the district had equal access to educational opportunities and whether the district adequately notified national origin minority parents and guardians who are limited-English proficient (LEP) of school activities that are called to the attention of other parents.
The OCR found the district was non-compliant in that:
• Some students whose primary language is not English were inappropriately excused from the ELL program;
• The district did not provide required instructional time for more than 240 elementary school ELL students;
• The district did not evaluate the effectiveness of its program and address any deficiencies; and
• The district did not have an effective system to identify LEP parents and to ensure that interpreters were always available when needed.
Under the agreement, the district will take a number of corrective actions, including:
• Ensuring that students whose primary home language is not English will be promptly assessed for English language proficiency to determine eligibility for placement in an ELL program and that students will not be improperly exempted from assessment;
• Assessing students who were improperly exempted from language proficiency assessment to determine whether they may be eligible to receive English language development services;
• Evaluating the English language development program at each school level to determine its effectiveness, and modifying the program in areas in which it is not meeting district goals;
• Developing and implementing policies and procedures to ensure that LEP parents are notified — in a language they understand — of school activities that are called to the attention of other parents; and
• Providing training to staff on identifying and serving language-minority parents.
Complaint prompted audit
District Superintendent Francis Antonelli said the OCR’s investigation was prompted by a parent who had an issue with the timeliness of receiving information about the district’s free and reduced lunch program, and that “morphed into an audit of our entire ESL program.”
The terms “English language learner” and “English as a second language” (ESL) are interchangeable. The district has traditionally used the “ESL” terminology.
Antonelli said the district’s ESL student population “exploded,” from about 100 in 2000 to 1,280 in 2013, and managing the program has been no easy task. He said the department’s investigation began in 2010, before he was appointed superintendent.
“We’re happy to see many of the concerns they had as a result of the audit were already being addressed by us, because we recognized the same issues,” Antonelli said. “A lot of positives came out of the audit.”
However, Antonelli said, one of the findings “might be a little problematic for us.”
In the past, students of a minority national origin coming into the district who could speak, read and understand English were not tested for placement in the ESL program. The Department of Education maintains that those students should have been tested, and the district will now have to test all of them.
“That could be roughly 4,000 or so kids, going back several years. Many, if not all, of these kids are doing well and succeeding without these services. It could be a challenge from manpower and time perspectives,” he said.
Eugenio Sosa, founder of Concerned Parents of Hazleton Area and director of the Hazleton One Community Center, said he was unaware of the audit, but he’s glad the Department of Education has looked into problems with the school district providing information to parents with limited English proficiency.
Sosa said the district is “very short on bilingual staff,” which makes getting information difficult for parents with limited English proficiency.
Sosa said volunteers with Concerned Parents would accompany parents to school meetings to act as interpreters, but the volunteers were at a disadvantage because they were not trained in district policy as a bilingual school employee would be.