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Federal Inquiry Clears Newhall Schools of Racial Bias

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Federal officials have cleared the Newhall School District of accusations of racial basis, including charges that it discriminates against some Latino students by segregating them from classmates until they learn English.

It is the third time in five years that investigators from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights in San Francisco have found that the district is not in violation of civil rights laws pertaining to minority students, as alleged by parents and community groups since 1986.

“We knew we were innocent because we’ve gone through this before, but it’s gratifying to have it confirmed by a third party,” Newhall Supt. J. Michael McGrath said in an interview Tuesday.

The most recent federal inquiry was in response to a complaint filed in the spring by parents Robert and Cynthia Erickson.

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The Ericksons and another parent, Barbara Fernandez, also filed a similar complaint with the state Department of Education, which will release a report on its investigation early next year, said Fred Tillman, manager of the agency’s complaint processing unit.

In the federal complaint, the Ericksons contend that the district discriminates against Latino students by segregating them at Newhall Elementary School and instructing them in Spanish while they learn English.

Known as the transitional method, the technique is designed to prevent limited English speakers from falling behind while preparing to take all their classes in English.

The Ericksons contended that the district does not provide enough bilingual teachers and did nothing to stop white parents from transferring their children from Newhall School, which is 45% Latino. They also contended that the district bused Latino students to Newhall School but failed to provide the same service for white students.

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Federal investigators who visited three schools in Newhall in September concluded Dec. 13 in a 12-page letter to Supt. J. Michael McGrath that the district does not discriminate against Latino or white students and is “continuing to develop and implement an acceptable program” for limited English-speakers.

The letter, however, states that the district suffers from a unspecified lack of bilingual education teachers, which the letter blames on a statewide shortage of such instructors.

The district has 13 bilingual teachers and 11 other language specialists, but “could use twice as many instructors” to serve its 600 limited-English speakers, McGrath said. The district attempts to recruit bilingual teachers by paying them an extra $4,000 annually, he said.

In a one-page written statement, the Ericksons on Tuesday said they filed the complaint because McGrath refused to communicate with them regarding the content of federal anti-discrimination laws, an allegation he has denied.

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The couple also said they continue to oppose the district’s bilingual education program, in which students learn basic skills in Spanish while learning English, because “no one has yet to prove to us that this program works.”

The district has begun a program to track the academic performance in secondary school of former limited English-speakers, said Gonzalo Freixes, the Newhall school board’s first Latino member. Freixes defended the program, saying it is better than the immersion method, in which Spanish-speakers take classes in English with their English-speaking classmates.

“That’s the way I learned--by being forced to sink or swim,” said Freixes, who is an attorney. “Just because I did doesn’t mean other children should have to suffer too.”


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