SacBee: ‘Law firm targets Hiram Johnson over teacher qualifications, student placements’

The following article by Kim Minugh of the Sacramento Bee was published on Wednesday, April 23, 2008, on Page B4.

A San Francisco law firm focused on equality in schools has filed two legal complaints alleging that staffing issues and inappropriate class placements at Hiram Johnson High School have denied equal access for some of the school’s neediest teens.

Lawyers with Public Advocates say Hiram Johnson administrators violated federal law when they moved at least two dozen English-language learners out of an intensive English class and into seemingly random classes such as landscaping and French.

The moves also conflicted with the school’s own policy of providing those students with double blocks of English, the lawyers contend.

Hiram Johnson administrators were under pressure to get almost 400 students – mostly English-language learners or at-risk students – out of classes that were still being taught by substitute teachers two months into the school year, when they made the schedule changes.

“It is clear that Hiram Johnson’s decision to transfer these students was made based not on the educational needs of the affected students, but rather on where there were empty desks to fill,” wrote attorneys John Affeldt and Tara Kini.

Public Advocates has also complained that 21 Hiram Johnson teachers are teaching courses without proper credentials or certification.

This week’s complaints are the firm’s second and third filed against Hiram Johnson High this school year. The first, in November, targeted the widespread use of substitute teachers.

District spokeswoman Maria Lopez said administrators didn’t see the complaints until Tuesday morning and were still reviewing them late in the day.

“We have begun to review it, and we want to look into all of the allegations carefully and then we’ll have a response,” she said.

Lopez also said the district took Public Advocates’ fall complaint “very seriously,” adding, “we will do the same again on this latest communication.”

Kini said her firm felt satisfied by the district’s response to the first complaint. Administrators rearranged the school’s master schedule so that all 400 students who’d had substitute teachers were in classes with fully credentialed teachers.

But in that shuffle, about a dozen English-language learners were taken from a second period of English and put into a landscaping class serving developmentally disabled students, The Bee reported in March.

At least another dozen were taken out of their second English period and placed into classes such as art, piano, and Spanish for Spanish speakers. Students interviewed at the time expressed frustration that English instruction they knew they needed was replaced by what they considered to be useless or easy classes.

As of Tuesday, most students remained in those classes, according to student schedules.

“Shifting (English learners’) schedules in this manner violated Hiram Johnson’s own school policy, as outlined in its recent (accreditation) report, to double block students who have limited English skills,” the attorneys wrote in their complaint. “More fundamentally, this practice contravenes the school’s own reasoned academic placement decisions made early in the fall with regard to these specific students.”

The complaint – filed as part of the state’s uniform complaint process – alleges that the moves violated the federal Equal Educational Opportunities Act. The district has 60 calendar days to investigate and, if necessary, remedy the situation.

The other complaint alleges that one-fifth of the teaching staff are teaching classes they shouldn’t, constituting a violation of the 2005 Williams settlement.

Affeldt was a lead attorney on the landmark Williams lawsuit, which established that California students must have access to quality materials, facilities and teachers

Of particular concern at Hiram Johnson, Kini said, is a math teacher who holds only a 30-day substitute credential but all year has been teaching six periods of math for English-language learners and students who still need to pass the math portion of the high school exit exam.

“I can’t even fathom what they were thinking right there,” Kini said. “And really concerning is that it seems that this teacher is teaching students who need a quality trained teacher the most.”

The attorneys are requesting that a permanent teacher be put in the substitute’s place. They also ask that the district outline what support it will provide students over the summer and beyond to compensate for a school year that Kini said amounts to “a lost opportunity.”

The district has 30 days to address and remedy the Williams complaint.

Attorneys also have requested a meeting with district officials to discuss all alleged violations.

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