LATINO VOICES
01/07/2015 01:31 pm ET Updated Jan 07, 2015

Obama Administration Reminds Schools That English Language Learners Must Be Treated Equally

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The Department of Justice and Education released guidance Wednesday on how states and local school districts should deal with the nearly 5 million public school students who are learning English.

The new guidance is the first time in decades that the department has put out clarified guidelines on English language learner (ELL) students. It aims to help schools understand how to best navigate serving these students, and was released along with a toolkit to help districts identify the children who need help with English.

The 40-page guidance makes it clear that schools must have systems in place to identify students who may be in need of ELL services. The accompanying toolkit provides examples of surveys that districts have sent home to families to find out if a household’s primary language is not English.

The guidance goes on to say that schools must provide ELL students with appropriate, specific education plans designed to help them become proficient in English -- while also providing them with the same learning opportunities available to all students, like magnet programs and honors societies. At the same time, while ELL students may require separate instruction for a portion of the school day, the guidance emphasizes that these students should not be unnecessarily segregated from their peers.

Further, while ELL students with disabilities should be provided with both the disability-related and language services they need, districts should be careful not to misidentify ELL students as students with disabilities because of their limited English proficiency, says the guidance. Parents who also have limited English proficiency must be provided with translated materials or translators when communicating with school districts.

On a Wednesday call with reporters, ED Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights Catherine E. Lhamon emphasized the increasing diversity of American public school students. Between 2002 and 2011, the percentage of students who are learning English increased in 40 states, Lhamon said, highlighting a new need to speak to this issue. Over the past few years, the Office for Civil Rights has received hundreds of complaints regarding civil rights violations of ELL students, Lhamon said.

Raymonde Charles, the deputy press secretary at the Department of Education, said that as of Jan. 1, the Office for Civil Rights is investigating complaints or conducting compliance reviews at 55 school districts in 25 different states. The investigations and reviews all deal with civil rights issues for ELL students or parents with limited English proficiency.

“Four decades ago, the U.S. Supreme Court held in Lau v. Nichols that all students deserve equal access to a high-quality education regardless of their language background or how well they know English,” said Lhamon in a press release. “Today’s guidance not only reminds us of the court’s ruling, but also provides useful information for schools as they work to ensure equity for students and families with limited English proficiency.”

In a statement provided by the Department of Education, superintendents around the country praised the guidance.

"More than 40 percent of our students in Denver Public Schools are English language learners, and our community’s future depends in large measure on our success in providing them with the education they deserve. The guidance –- which provides clarity and synthesizes ELL requirements -– will be a useful resource as we continue to work to meet the needs of our English language learners,” said Tom Boasberg, superintendent of Denver Public Schools, in the statement.

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