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U.S. to monitor S.L. District

2 sides OK plan on civil rights issues

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The U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights has reached an agreement with Salt Lake City School District, accused of not meeting needs of students with limited English skills and other violations.

Now, the office will look over the district's shoulder to make sure it addresses concerns raised in two civil rights complaints filed this school year.

As state director of educational equity Richard Gomez puts it, the district won't have it easy.

"Salt Lake District is to be commended for writing a good plan. If they implement it . . . in every way they say they've committed to doing it, the case will be closed," Gomez said Friday. "But very few districts are able to implement a plan they've committed to in a short period of time."

The federal office began looking into Salt Lake City School District following complaints filed in October 2000 and January 2001.

The complaints accused the district of discriminating against minority students for not having procedures to consider them for or tell their parents about gifted programs. They said the district places students in special education because they can't speak fluent English, and that it doesn't communicate with parents in their native tongue or involve them in school community councils.

The complaints also contend that the district does not follow evaluation and placement rules for special education students, fails to respond to reports of peers harassing students with disabilities and does not provide them with auxiliary services and supplies.

The district promised to address the complaints by notching up its "Alternative Language Services" plan, notifying parents of programs and community meetings in their native languages and training teachers and students on policies.

The district will flesh out its plan, laid out in an eight-page letter, by August and implement it in October.

If it doesn't follows through, the office will "open the case and resume its investigation," the office wrote in a letter this week.

But that doesn't mean the district was out of compliance with federal law, district spokesman Jason Olsen said. Rather, district practices were never out of compliance with federal law but only needed to be clarified in writing.

"We were doing almost everything they had mentioned to us, but they may not all have been in the Alternative Language Services master plan," he said.

But that's not the way one Hispanic civil rights activist sees it.

"The findings confirm what parents and community of Glendale Middle School have alleged over the past few years: the Salt lake School District is not ensuring that (limited English proficiency) students have access to equal educational opportunities, and consequently the district is discriminating against language minority students in violation of federal law," said Michael Clara, PTA president and chairman of the Glendale Middle School Community Council, who was part of the "class action" complaint filed in January.

At any rate, district officials have their work cut out for them, Gomez said.

Utah is facing a shortage of teachers certified to teach students learning English as a second language (ESL). At the same time, the district's needs are great.

ESL students make up about one-fourth of the district's 25,000 students.

About 100 of the district's 1,500 teachers are ESL-certified, and 34 teachers are working on it.

The district also is trying to "grow its own" ESL teachers. It requires new teachers to receive ESL endorsement and is providing training for current teachers.

Still, considering attrition and the draw of higher-paying states, Gomez notes that's no guarantee the district immediately will have enough ESL specialists to go around.

"Because it's a process, no one should get any security from thinking this is going to happen overnight," he said. "It's going to take awhile."

E-mail: jtcook@desnews.com