May 31, 2007
By ROBERT A. FRAHM, Courant Staff Writer
When Hartford schools sent newly arrived families of Somalian refugees notices about school events, the families couldn't read them because the notices were written in English.
When Spanish-speaking students at Hartford Public High School studied biology, they received worn biology textbooks published in 1992. Their English-speaking classmates got texts published in 2002.
And when a Liberian immigrant had repeated disciplinary problems and suspensions, school officials said they had not yet evaluated him for special education classes because new arrivals needed time to adjust. The boy had been enrolled for 2½ years.
The U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights will investigate those allegations - part of a wide-ranging complaint that Hartford's public schools have failed to provide adequate services to many recent immigrants and other non-English speaking children.
The complaint, filed by a children's advocacy group, alleges a lack of proper curriculum and support, particularly for recent arrivals from Somalia, Liberia, Cuba, Afghanistan and other countries.
The civil rights investigators will arrive in June to investigate the group's claims that the school district has placed non-English speakers in inappropriate classes, given them outdated textbooks and left them without necessary support, such as special education classes.
The Center for Children's Advocacy, based in Hartford, asked the federal agency to investigate possible violations of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990.
The center is seeking orders for remedies such as better materials, additional tutors and a system for rendering school-related materials in languages other than English.
"Many of the students we refer to have not had previous education" but are assigned to classes with students who are far more advanced, said Emily Breon, a lawyer with the children's advocacy center. "We're talking about students who are learning to count from one to 10 ... who are placed in algebra classes."
Hartford school officials say the school system has already begun addressing some of the problems, and recently underwent a successful federal audit of programs for children who are learning to speak English.
Nearly half the district's students come from families who speak a language other than English at home, according to state figures.
The Center for Children's Advocacy says about 8 percent of the school population consists of recent arrivals, including refugees, from more than 90 countries.
Officials estimate that the district's students speak about 50 languages.
"We really make an all-out effort to reach these populations," said Ana Maria Olezza, director of the school system's bilingual department. "Within the languages there are dialectical variations, so it is a challenge."
The children's advocacy center alleges the district has failed to communicate adequately with non-English speaking families.
But Olezza said schools have hired tutors and translators, made efforts to reach non-English speakers by telephone and created orientation videos and handbooks in several major languages. Olezza also said the district continues to update textbooks for non-English speakers.
The center also contends that schools have failed to adequately identify new arrivals for special education classes or language support programs.
In addition, it says non-English speakers do not always receive the same opportunities their classmates do.
It cites, for example, a math program at Hartford Public High School for ninth-graders who are more than three years behind grade level.
The intensive program, known as "Ramp Up," is not offered to bilingual students, the complaint says.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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