Newark school district failed to properly educate English learners, feds say

A new rule will give students who are eligible for bilingual programs a boost in the enrollment process.
A federal investigation “uncovered wide-ranging failures to properly serve students learning English” in Newark schools. (Patrick Wall / Chalkbeat)

The Newark school district has failed to properly educate many students who are still learning English, according to a nearly four-year investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice that found “wide-ranging failures” in the district’s English language program, officials said.

As a result, New Jersey’s largest school district has agreed to overhaul how it serves English learners, a group that comprises one-fifth of the school system’s enrollment. Under the terms of the 25-page agreement, the district must assess all students who speak languages other than English to check if they need language services, provide the services at any schools the students attend, monitor their progress, and hire more qualified teachers.

The settlement lists at least 10 ways the district’s English language program allegedly violated federal law. Among the problems, the district under-identified students who require language support, placed English learners in schools without adequate services, and failed to hire and retain enough qualified teachers, the agreement said.

​​“The department’s multi-year investigation uncovered wide-ranging failures to properly serve students learning English,” the Justice Department said in a press release Wednesday evening.

The department’s civil rights division launched the investigation in 2017, when the state still operated the Newark school system, in response to a complaint that the district was failing to properly serve English learners. Investigators determined that the district was not complying with federal civil rights laws related to education. The district’s practices left some English learners with little or no language services and removed others from language programs before they were fluent in English, the department said.

“We are pleased that the Newark Board of Education has agreed to fully embrace its obligation to meet the language needs of its English learners and resolve the serious violations of federal law uncovered during this investigation,” said a statement from Acting U.S. Attorney for the District of New Jersey Rachael Honig, whose office took part in the investigation. 

“We will continue to hold school districts and other education agencies accountable so that all students in New Jersey have equal access to educational opportunities,” she added.

The agreement said aspects of Newark’s programs and services for English learners violate the Equal Educational Opportunities Act of 1974, which says schools must remove any language barriers that limit students’ access to instruction. The Justice Department will monitor the district at least through the end of 2024 to ensure it complies with the agreement.

The district did not admit to any legal violations or other problems cited by investigators by agreeing to the settlement, which the Newark school board approved last week.

“The district stands poised and ready to address the needs outlined in the settlement agreement for bilingual students,” district spokesperson Nancy Deering said in a statement Thursday, adding that the district is grateful the investigation has ended. “The work ahead requires the will to do right by all children and this administration has always been committed to doing just that, which includes English language learners.”

The Newark school district enrolls about 7,000 students with limited English proficiency. As required by the agreement, the district has recently taken some steps to improve its services for those students.

The school board approved a new bilingual science and reading curriculum in May. And the district is offering a $4,000 bonus to teachers who obtain an English as a Second Language certification or bilingual endorsement, which Montclair State University will help provide. 

However, teacher recruitment remains a challenge.

“We are in dire need of qualified bilingual teachers,” said Valerie Wilson, the district’s school business administrator, at a board meeting earlier this year.

The district’s English learners include a mix of students born in the U.S. and abroad who most commonly speak Spanish or Portuguese, though some speak Arabic, French, Haitian Creole, or at least 20 other languages, district officials have said. About 20% of the district’s roughly 37,000 students are still learning to speak English, according to data from the 2019-2020 school year, the most recent year available.

By contrast, English learners account for only about 2% of students in the city’s charter schools, even though those schools enroll more than a third of public school students in Newark. Critics say the schools don’t offer enough language services to attract those students, while charter advocates say the main reason is that the schools are located in neighborhoods where few English learners live.

Despite the district’s large population of English learners, less than half of its more than 60 schools offer bilingual or ESL programs, according to the district’s enrollment guide. On average, the district’s English learners struggle academically. Just 16% of English learners who had spent five or more years in the district passed an English proficiency test in 2019, according to state data.

Roger León, a longtime district official appointed superintendent by the Newark school board in 2018, has said little about his plans to improve services and outcomes for English learners.

He has often claimed limited responsibility for the district’s troubled program for English learners, blaming its failures on previous superintendents hired by the state. But he also has promised to make changes.

“One of the gifts that was left for me was a Department of Justice violation, whereas Spanish-speaking people came to the district and the administration at that time, apparently, based on what has been written, violated some laws,” he said at a board meeting in March. “Although I wasn’t part of that, I am here now, and so what we are actually doing is ameliorating all of that.”

Read the settlement agreement below or here.

Update: This story has been updated to include a statement from Newark Public Schools.

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