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With number of English learners growing, school districts get federal guidance on honoring students’ civil rights

For the first time this year, non-white children make up a larger portion of the country’s public school students than white children. Within that growing racial diversity is an increasing linguistic diversity. There are about 5 million public school students who are not proficient English speakers. Since 2004, 19 states have seen the number of these students enrolled in public schools grow more than 40 percent, according to the Department of Education.

Today, the department’s Office of Civil Rights and the Department of Justice released a letter to school districts on how to comply with their obligation to provide equal access to a public education for this growing group of learners.

There is no shortage of signs that school districts across the country are struggling with serving an increasingly diverse student body. The country’s teaching pool doesn’t reflect growing classroom diversity; graduation rates and test scores of black and Latino students continue to trail those of their white and Asian peers; and black and Latino students often face harsher discipline for minor offenses at school.

When it comes to English learners, data from the Office of Civil Rights shows, they make up about 9 percent of public school students but account for about 12 percent of those held back a grade and less than 2 percent of those who take at least one AP class.

The guidance school districts are receiving today outlines their obligations that include to assess students’ English proficiency when they enroll, sufficiently staff and support programs for English learners, assess English learners for special education services, monitor their progress so they can move into mainstream programs and to assess the efficacy of the district’s programs for English learners.

Catherine E. Lhamon, assistant secretary for civil rights in the Department of Education, told reporters during a conference call that since 2009 her office has received more than 475 complaints about school districts failing to meet their federal obligation to take “affirmative action” to support students with limited English proficiency. That includes integrating them as much as possible into mainstream classrooms and providing access to the full range of educational programs offered to other students.

Earlier this month, the office closed one of those complaints against the Cleveland Metropolitan School District, which was not advertising high-quality math and science programs to Spanish-speaking families.

PBS NewsHour education coverage is part of American Graduate: Let’s Make it Happen, a public media initiative made possible by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

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