ACLU suit targets English learning

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By Christina Hoag and Gosia Wazniacka
The Associated Press

DINUBA, Calif. — A group of teachers, parents and students sued a small Central Valley school district Wednesday, alleging its program to teach English to young elementary school children is ineffective and violates the students’ constitutional rights.

Three chapters of the American Civil Liberties Union in California and other civil rights organizations filed the lawsuit against Dinuba Unified School District in Sacramento County Superior Court.

The lawsuit charges that Dinuba Unified uses a grammar-intense curriculum that is unproven for first- and second-grade children and is causing them to fall far behind in both English learning and in other academic skills. During the first half-year they are enrolled in the program, students are taken out of the regular reading curriculum.

That is a violation of the children’s right to a fair and equal education under the California constitution, the suit said.

In a written statement, district Superintendent Jose Hernandez said the district could not comment on the allegations or legal arguments in the suit. But, he said, the district and the parties to the lawsuit had a “productive conversation” today.

“The parties have agreed to work together in good faith to avoid costly and excessive litigation,” the statement said. “We always want to work with anyone concerned about how we can provide the best education possible for our children.”

In a statement on a district website, Hernandez states the program is a high priority for the district to improve students’ English proficiency.

More than half the students in the 5,700-pupil district, located in an agricultural community south of Fresno, are English learners.

According to the suit, the method known as Second Language Acquisition Development Instruction calls for 6-, 7- and 8-year-old students to deconstruct sentences and memorize formal parts of speech before they have even acquired basic reading skills or understand such concepts in their native language. The district adopted the method three years ago.

Teachers have repeatedly complained to administrators that this method is inappropriate for young children, said Nona Rhea, a third-grade teacher who is one of four teacher plaintiffs in the suit.

“Day after day, when every minute counts, these kids are memorizing parts of speech, what a modal verb is, or diagraming sentences, when they should have been in the classroom with their peers learning how to read,” said Rhea.