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Torres testifies about ‘strong’ programming during U46 trial

Updated: April 15, 2012 8:09AM

CHICAGO — School District U46 Superintendent Jose Torres never could be an “Undercover Boss,” he joked. After his “Listening and Learning” tour of U46 schools in the months after he took charge in July 2008, everybody in the Elgin district knows what he looks like, Torres said.

Still, in the four years since that tour, the superintendent never has received a complaint from families of students who are black, Hispanic or English Language Learners about discrimination in the district’s gifted or academy programs, he said.

In fact, he said, “One of the reasons I applied to the position is it wasn’t a broken system.”

Torres testified Tuesday as the defendants began their case in the racial discrimination trial against U46 in U.S. District Court in Chicago.

The lawsuit, originally brought against the district by 14 plaintiffs in 2006, alleges the state’s second-largest school district discriminated against black and Hispanic students by placing them in overcrowded schools in its 2004 school boundary plan. It also allegedly did not offer those students access to gifted and advanced programs or appropriate help to ELL students.

Torres’ appearance followed several hours of testimony from parents about students and student records, during which the courtroom was closed, according to U46 attorney Maree Sneed of Hogan Lovells. Sneed declined further comment because those records are confidential under federal law.

Torres said he met with the U46 school board, staff, community members, and black and Hispanic advisory groups when he came to “this place called Elgin I had never heard of” from Chicago Public Schools, where he was regional superintendent of schools in the city’s Englewood neighborhood. By October 2008, he had visited every school, he said. That meant every classroom in the district’s elementary and middle schools and many, in its high schools.

He said he did so to “really understand the system before you start changing things.”

He also reviewed every program, including programming for ELL students, because he has a background in ELL, he said.

And, he said, “I found a program that was a strong program.”

Last fall, witnesses for plaintiff’s attorney Futterman Howard Ashley & Weltman said former U46 Superintendent Connie Neale had directed the Elgin school district in 2008 to remove students from that program after three years. They also expressed concern that black and Hispanic students — including ELL students in elementary and middle school gifted programs — were not making it into the high school gifted program, echoed Monday by Donna Ford, professor of education and human development at Vanderbilt University in Nashville.

Testimony by Neale and past school board members then characterized the three-year exit as a strategy rather than a policy, guided by the federal No Child Left Behind Act requirement that all students be tested in English after three years of special programming. And Torres said Tuesday that program had “strong entrance and exit criteria” when he joined U46.

In the 2008-09 school year, the district used ACCESS and MAP testing, as well as teacher recommendations, to exit students from ELL into general education classrooms, he said. During cross examination by Stewart Weltman of Futterman Howard, he said he did not believe teacher recommendations meant students were exited too quickly from the program.

Torres did admit he questioned why students in elementary gifted programs were retested before entering middle school gifted programs.

And he said he was bothered by the numbers in the elementary gifted program, School Within A School: Of the 224 students in that program in 2008-09, eight were Hispanic and one, black, Weltman said. Meantime, 43 percent of the district’s student population was Hispanic, the attorney added.

Torres said he was less bothered by the numbers in the gifted academy that year at Elgin High School: Of 182 students, 29 were Hispanic and five, black, Weltman said. While 43 percent of students districtwide were Hispanic, that may not have been reflected at Elgin High School, and 20 percent of Hispanic students had limited proficiency in English, he said.

“It’s not bad. It’s not where I’d like it to be, but I don’t think it’s that bad,” he said. “I would like all my students to be gifted and have the opportunity to be in gifted programming, so anything less than 100 percent leaves room for growth.”

Judge Robert W. Gettleman, who is deciding the suit in a bench trial, said he plans to question Torres himself Wednesday.

Coming up this week, Sneed said the defendants plan to call Barbara Bonner, former chief academic officer of U46, to the stand. They also plan to question Steve Klein and Kathleen Hughes, both former coordinators of the U46 gifted education program.

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