4 Families File Lawsuit Over Delay in School Enrollment

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Four families have filed suit against the Long Beach Unified School District for allegedly delaying for as long as 31 days the enrollment of their children.

The families claim that their seven children, who do not speak English, were denied an education by being placed on a waiting list instead of in a classroom, Legal Aid lawyers said. They filed the lawsuit last week in Los Angeles Superior Court.

The suit seeks to eliminate the district's alleged waiting list, identify all students who were placed on a list and offer whatever remedial services are needed to make up the lost class time.

"People were told basically that there was no space and we're going to put you on a waiting list until there is space available," Legal Aid counsel Jack Alanis said.

"There are compulsory education laws. The district is violating those laws if it tells parents there is no space, and their children have to go home and wait," he said.

Latino activists and attorneys said they believe the delays affected many families besides the four in the lawsuit, probably more than 100.

The district denies the claim that large numbers of children have been kept out of school. There are valid reasons why the district did not immediately enroll the seven pupils named in the lawsuit, said Martha Estrada, director of Program Assistance for Language Minority Students.

Two of the children tested positive for tuberculosis, and had to go to the doctor for chest X-rays. Three others lacked legally required documents, such as immunization records or proof of age or guardianship. One child was indeed offered placement the same day, Estrada said, and the last pupil had to wait only because the parents wanted the child in a special program that was temporarily filled.

The complaint alleges that some children had to wait a week before even getting an appointment at the district's Assignment Center, which enrolls students with a limited ability to speak English. Estrada said staffers see students the same day or the next day if the family arrives too late in the afternoon.

Staffers complete enrollment paperwork with parents on the spot. They also rate students' ability to speak English and administer aptitude exams. At a health station, students can receive immunizations, get a mini-checkup and have their vision and hearing tested. After these steps, which can occupy most of a day, parents choose an education program. Their options include a neighborhood school, an orientation class, a newcomers' program or a magnet school.

Parents cannot always get their preferred program right away because of staffing shortages, Estrada said. Only then do families go on a waiting list. At no time, however, was a student denied a place somewhere in the district, she said.

Estrada said the center has processed about 5,000 students this year. About 28% of the district's 71,000 students have a limited ability to speak English and the number is growing each year. About 50 different languages are represented.

Supt. Tom Giugni defended the Assignment Center's overall success. "We've made great progress, and just because there were one or two youngsters that supposedly dropped through the cracks, we didn't think a lawsuit was necessary," Giugni said. "A phone call could have resolved the problem, if there was one."

The district has not progressed as much as it claims, said Jerome Torres, chairman of the Hispanic Advisory Committee. Torres' committee, a citizen's watchdog group, asked the Legal Aid Foundation of Long Beach to file the suit.

"The top administrators have known about this problem a long time despite their denials," Torres said. "This is the worst-kept secret in the school district."

Only one child named in the suit, 6-year-old Perla Elorza, was not enrolled at the time the suit was filed May 8. In a declaration to the court, her mother, Yolanda Ramirez, described a series of delays over a month's time.

"I am concerned that my child had not been placed in school yet," Ramirez said through a translator. "Since she has very limited proficiency in the English language, it is very important for her to start her lessons right away. I have a very limited education and am not qualified to teach my child at home. I do not think that my child should have to wait any longer in order to be placed in a classroom."

The district assigned Perla to a class the day after the suit was filed, Alanis said.

"We're not talking about how good the programs are," he said. "We're talking about whether the children should be in school. We're talking about the right to an education, period."

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