Los Angeles Times: Blog: Black students added to discrimination probe at L.A. Unified
By Howard Blume
Under pressure from local community leaders, the federal Office for Civil Rights will look at whether low academic achievement of African American students results from discrimination -- intentional or not -- by the Los Angeles Unified School District.
The probe, disclosed in a recent letter to community groups, expands an ongoing investigation into services provided to students who are learning English.
Black community leaders hailed the news at a Saturday community forum at the Southside Bethel Baptist Church in the Green Meadows neighborhood of South Los Angeles. But participants also said they were disappointed that their calls for an investigation took so long to bear fruit.
"To initially focus on one group and exclude others could have been divisive and counterproductive to overall reform," the Rev. Eric P. Lee said prior to the forum.
"It is unfortunate that it required the civil rights community to demand from the Department of Education that children be provided educational equality," added Lee, who is president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference of Greater Los Angeles.
Officials with the federal agency said in March that they would focus on English learners at L.A. Unified because the district has about 220,000 -- more than any other school system in the country. English learners, most of them Latino, make up a third of students in the nation's second-largest school system. Black students make up 10.8% of enrollment.
Federal officials said they are pursuing potential discrimination concerns involving black students in other regions of the country. They added that evaluating programs for English learners should benefit all underserved students, especially the many black students who do not speak standard English.
Black community leaders were not satisfied. L.A. Unified enrolls more than 70,000 African American students, far more than any other school system in the state. And civil rights leaders have argued that black children never achieved the equality promised by integration and other past reform efforts.
"The message being sent to Los Angeles' African American community is that the devastation to black students being caused by the failure of public education is of little consequence to you or your department," a coalition of black leaders wrote in a May 21 letter to the federal Department of Education.
As part of the original review, federal analysts have been examining how English learners are identified and when they are judged fluent enough to handle regular course work. They're also looking at whether English learners have qualified, appropriately trained teachers, and at how teachers make math and science understandable for students with limited English.
The expanded inquiry will compare five largely black elementary schools in Carson, View Park and Hawthorne with five largely white elementary schools in Bel-Air, Tarzana, Studio City and Encino.
"Our administration is committed to responding to communities and the civil rights issues they confront for all students," Russlynn Ali, assistant secretary for civil rights, wrote in her letter to community leaders.
Federal officials have stressed that poor academic results do not, by themselves, prove discrimination. But discrimination does not have to be intentional to be subject to federal remedies and sanctions, they said.
Participants in the Saturday forum included Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles); Blair Taylor, president of the Los Angeles Urban League; and Leon Jenkins, president of the Los Angeles branch of the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People.