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Seattle must serve bilingual students

Dr. Maria Goodloe-Johnson, superintendent of Seattle Schools

While the controversy around exactly how many students actually graduate from Seattle Public Schools continues to receive media and school district attention, one of the most cost effective ways of improving graduation rates — specifically for immigrants and refugees — has been lost in the debate.  The Seattle School Board is poised to once again wrestle with funding and locating a bilingual high school in Seattle.  The commitment for a “World School” was made more than a decade ago and needs to be confirmed.

Although Washington state is in the top 10 of all states that receive refugees and immigrants, Seattle Public Schools has not created the systems and processes to meet their needs. 

Recently arrived immigrant and refugee youth of middle and high school age are typically assigned to the Secondary Bilingual Orientation Center (SBOC) for English instruction and assistance with transition to the American educational system. After a maximum of three semesters earning few or no credits toward graduation, they are enrolled in one of the city’s comprehensive high schools which are unprepared to continue the level of language support these students need.  As a result, they are as likely to drop out as to graduate.

In 2001, voters approved $14 million for the development of a World School where these students are held to high expectations and given extra support to succeed.  But the district has repeatedly reallocated those funds to cover extra expenses.

In spring 2010, the superintendent approved a new model for implementation in fall 2011 and stipulated that staff and community members would work together to identify an appropriate site and design the facility. Community-based organizations obtained grant funding for after-school and parent programs based on the new model; agencies planned to house new programs within the new model; the city has committed to using Family and Education Levy funds to house and staff a needed health clinic to address the needs of newly arrived immigrants and refugees.

Sources outside the district committed hundreds of thousands of dollars in resources.  Community advocates for bilingual students were hopeful that the district would finally meet the needs of secondary bilingual students.

Their hope was short-lived. In fall 2010, the district abandoned the collaborative design process and decided to locate the new school together with another school in a single building. By January of this year, the district stated that secondary level non-native English speakers would receive only those academic services that can be fit into the shared building.

Later last month, district administrators recommended that the board cut $500,000 in operational funds, which had been allocated in 2010 to implement the new model.  Without those funds, the new school will not open as promised in the fall of this year.

Those of us who understand public funding know this means that the school will most likely never be funded.  As administrators come and go, as boards come and go, and as funding circumstances change, the people in charge forget the promises of the past.  This has been the history of bilingual education in Seattle.  In the experience of Seattle’s bilingual students, a dream deferred is a dream that dies.

Why should the city care about bilingual students?  They currently represent 11 percent of the district’s population.  They come from war or deprivation or oppressions that most of us cannot imagine.  They tend not to have a strong parents’ advocacy group that understands how the system works and how to advocate for its children.  While other groups can marshal their constituencies to action, this group does not have the political acumen or resources to keep the district to its promises even though the courts and current civil rights statutes agree. 

While the district has taken steps to address the deficiencies of its elementary model for non-native English speakers, the World School was its response to its failure to meet the needs of secondary students.  The creation of the World School would have meant, for the first time in recent memory, the district was living up to the legal and ethical obligations established by 30 years of case law and regulation.  Postponing action means that the district remains out of compliance in protecting the civil rights of secondary bilingual students. 

It is understandable that the district needs to cut programs and budgets in the worst fiscal crisis that public schools have seen in a generation.  However, eliminating or reducing funding for the World School means that the district continues practices that deprive students of essential support for academic success.

This lost funding represents more than the reduction of services that other budget cuts offer.  A delayed response means continuing to fail in our commitment to these children. It also means that momentum developed through multiple cross-city partnerships will be lost as agencies that have committed hundreds of thousands of dollars will allocate those funds elsewhere. 

The district must not continue to abrogate its responsibility to secondary bilingual students.  It must continue the reforms begun last year. As an organization that works for us, we must hold the district accountable for the ways in which it serves us all. We cannot allow it to ignore its prior commitment to a timeline for opening the World School in fall 2011.

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