U46 trial resumes, claims district pushed English Language Learners out
By Emily McFarlan firstname.lastname@example.org October 17, 2011 8:20PM
Connie Neale, former superintendent of School District U46 in Elgin, testified during a trial involving U46's school boundary policy. | Sun-Times Media File
Updated: January 23, 2012 4:13AM
CHICAGO — Dionnes Rivera, then director of bilingual education in School District U46, had one meeting with Superintendent Connie Neale shortly after Neale joined the Elgin school district in 2002.
“I went home crying. I could imagine the impact on the kids’ lives,” Rivera said.
Rivera said Monday the former superintendent had directed her to remove all U46 students from the English Language Learners program after they’d spent three years in it.
That testimony came as the plaintiffs’ evidence in phases two and three of the racial discrimination lawsuit against U46 started in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois in Chicago. These phases allege the district did not offer appropriate help to English Language Learners or access to gifted and advanced programs to Hispanic and black students.
Judge Robert W. Gettleman heard phase one, which alleged the Elgin school district’s 2004 school boundary plan discriminated against Hispanic and black students by placing them in overcrowded schools, in March. He declined to rule on that phase until he’d heard the rest of the case.
“The reason we’re here today is because of the overlap of these issues,” Gettleman said.
When Rivera, who retired from U46 in 2007, started as assistant director of bilingual education in the district in 1990, she said, it used a “late exit” model for its required transitional bilingual education program. That model taught core content to students in their first language, along with English as a Second Language, she explained.
Students gradually left the program, joining regular classrooms at their home schools, once they tested proficient (50 percent or higher) on an English proficiency exam, she said. And, Rivera said, “The program was working.”
As director of the program, she said, in the 2002-03 school year, she “started to look at the program under the law and make it public so that we could make changes to make it better.”
But when Rivera was called to Neale’s office, it wasn’t in response to that report, she said. It was to be told by the superintendent every ELL student who had been in the program three or more years had to be put in regular classrooms.
That’s something the former director said she considered “a violation of their right to be in the program — a violation of the law, really.” Research shows it takes five to seven years for a child to become proficient in a second language, she said.
In February 2003, the U46 Board of Education adopted a policy to have all ELL students leave the program after five years, according to Stewart Weltman of plaintiffs’ attorney Futterman Howard Ashley & Weltman, and Rivera said the first group left at the end of the 2002-03 school year. Office staff and teacher’s assistants were “eliminated little by little” by budget cuts, most full-day kindergarten classes were reduced to half days and principals hired many teachers who were not certified to teach in a bilingual classroom, she added.
Meantime, she said, the number of ELL students in the district was increasing.
Neale, who appeared Monday as a witness in the trial, remembered her meeting with Rivera and the school board decision differently. “That wasn’t a program. That was a strategy,” she said.
The federal No Child Left Behind Act just had been passed, she said, and “the federal law said after three years, you have to take the (standardized) test in English. We were looking at making our programs as strong as possible so our children would be successful.”
Rivera also expressed concern Monday that U46 students in the elementary or middle-school Spanish English Transition School Within A School program, a gifted program for students who had left the ELL program, “were not making it into the high school gifted program.”
In the 2006-07 school year, Elgin High School’s gifted program was 72 percent white, 12 percent Hispanic and 2 percent black, Weltman said. Meantime, the district as a whole was 42.7 percent white, 41 percent Hispanic and 6.8 percent white, he added.
During the cross-examination of Rivera by Michael Hernandez of Franczek Radelet, representing U46, the former director admitted state law required only that ELL students receive special programming for three years, or whenever a student is considered proficient in English. That cross-examination is expected to continue Tuesday.