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Glendale Middle School's "newcomers" program earned a passing grade from federal investigators who say the program's immigrant and refugee students are "not unduly segregated" from the rest of the school.
Under a resolution agreement with the U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil Rights (OCR), however, Salt Lake City School District will develop "objective" criteria for ensuring that students who are placed in the program are a good fit for it, and don't linger there.
The agreement concludes the investigation, though federal officials will monitor the district through February 2010.
"It's a way to take corrective action without admitting you've done anything wrong," said community activist Michael Clara, whose complaint gave rise to the probe. "But at the end of the day, it's beneficial, because they're going to make changes."
Like many schools nationwide, Glendale operates a "newcomers" program to ease non-English-speaking students into mainstream classes. Newcomers are separated from the regular student body much of the day, enjoying specialized language instruction and smaller class sizes.
But Clara contends the sheltered classrooms risk isolating kids and doing more harm than good.
In 2008, he complained to OCR about Glendale housing its newcomers outside in portable classrooms.
In response, Glendale moved its 35 newcomers inside. But Clara wasn't satisfied; one of the classrooms was a retrofitted teachers' station.
Other problems surfaced and Clara filed another, expanded complaint alleging the school arbitrarily shuttles students into the program based on their ethnicity and country of origin. Clara also said the school doesn't provide adequate translation and interpretation services to inform parents of their choices. And the program's teachers aren't qualified to teach science and math, he contended.
Investigators found no evidence of segregation, noting that newcomers take regular dance, ceramics, music, drama and physical education classes. School-related notices are published in multiple languages and interpreters are routinely available.
But they determined the district could do a better job mainstreaming newcomers.
"We were being a little overprotective at Glendale. We need to nudge them out of the nest quicker," said Salt Lake City School District Superintendent McKell Withers. "Our tendency to wait until we felt they would do well in a regular English class may have slowed down their English acquisition."
Glendale's newcomer program caters to immigrants from Mexico and refugees uprooted by war or genocide from homes in Somalia, Burma, Kenya and Burundi. Some had never attended school prior to arriving in the U.S. and aren't proficient in their native language.
Teachers push newcomers into regular schoolwork as soon as possible, but some students have remained in the program for up to three years.
Under the OCR agreement, Glendale will mainstream the students within one year, or justify their extended enrollment with literacy scores. The school also must test students prior to placing them in the voluntary program and inform parents of the program's pro's and cons.
Ironically, one of Glendale's newcomer classes has returned to a portable. Glendale principal Betty Valenzuela says the space is more conducive to learning and welcoming to parents who are often overwhelmed by the school's large, winding halls.
But Clara would prefer to see electives like algebra and geometry moved outside.
"We're still stigmatizing these newcomers by relegating them to a portable," he said. "I've exhausted all legal means to address that. But our community standards can exceed those of OCR."