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Boston schools working to comply with federal probe

Bridgit Brown

A few days after Education Secretary Arne Duncan announced last year that he would significantly increase enforcement of the Equal Educational Opportunities Act of 1974 and Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Boston School Committee received a notice from the Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division (DOJ) and the Department of Education, Office for Civil Rights (OCR), alleging that it was in violation of both.

After a six-month investigation which included site visits to schools, review and analysis of school data and reports, OCR revealed that the BPS had failed to properly identify and adequately serve thousands of English Language Learner (ELL) students as required by Civil Rights legislation.   

The Boston Public Schools then entered a compliance agreement in September 2010, with OCR and DOJ.

“The agreement will provide services to kids who are underserved and revamp our entire enrollment process,” said Superintendent Carol Johnson. “Among other issues, students were opting out of ELL services at a level that was higher than would have been predicted.”

Johnson made these remarks after speaking on a panel called “What Happens When OCR Comes Calling On Your City” last week.

The panel was a part of the 55th Annual Fall Conference of the Council of the Great City Schools. Other panelists included Russlynn Ali, assistant secretary of the ORC; Anurima Bhargava, educational opportunities section chief of DOJ; and Maribel S. Medina, general counsel of San Francisco Unified School District.

“The Office of Civil Rights felt that we were overly encouraging people not to accept services at the registration process,” Johnson explained. “We had to do teacher training, provide compensatory services to students who have not been served in the past through extended learning opportunities and summer programs to compensate for the fact that we did not provide services.”

She also said that the ELL investigation required lots of documentation on every single student that was eligible for services. They tested more than 7,000 students who had not been tested before and found that 5,000 of them needed services. They also had to allocate $10 million to making sure that ELL students got the services that they need.

But that’s just one complaint. The OCR is now investigating claims of racial discrimination against the Boston Public Schools. The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law of the Boston Bar Association (LCCR) and the Black Educators’ Alliance of Massachusetts (BEAM) filed the complaint earlier this year with the OCR on behalf of black and Latino students and their parents.

While LCCR and BEAM acknowledge the district’s need to make critical decisions to address the budget and underperforming schools, they claim that the BPS’ approved Reinvest and Redesign Plan treats black and Latino students different from white students.

The plan aims to close several schools in the district, but the schools that are being closed mostly serve students from Roxbury, Dorchester and Mattapan, largely black and Latino students, while students living in West Roxbury, Roslindale and Brighton, and who are largely white and Asian, are the least impacted by the plan.

“We are not suggesting that the District continue to blindly pour money into schools that have been identified as failing,” said LCCR’s staff attorney Rahsaan D. Hall. “However, we are concerned that the burden of making these improvements overwhelmingly falls on the backs of black and brown children in the city.”

Nora Toney, president of BEAM also said that disproportionate numbers of school closings have historically occurred in the predominantly black neighborhoods of Boston. “The school closings have had a profound impact on our students, families and community; creating constant disruption, instability and uncertainty while failing to provide the quality schools promised by the district.”

The OCR accepted the complaint, stating that the 13 allegations made by LCCR and BEAM fall under the jurisdiction of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Title VI, which prohibits institutions that receive federal assistance from discriminating against students and their parents on the basis of race, color or national origin.

OCR is currently investigating whether or not the Boston Public School Committee discriminated against black and Latino students in the development, approval, and implementation of the Reinvest and Redesign Plan.

Johnson said that the OCR investigation of ELL student services shed light on other issues amongst the BPS population.

“Whenever you begin to look at achievement gaps for any group, it identifies other inequities in the system that must be addressed,” Johnson said. “We also need to look at the needs of African American children who are English speaking, but who still have significant academic challenges. At the end of the day this is about giving kids the opportunity to learn, whether they are black, Latino, White, Asian.”