Parents and Teachers Sue School District, California for Violating Students’ Right to Equal Education Opportunities

Today, parents and teachers in Dinuba, CA filed suit against the Dinuba Unified School District and the State of California, charging that the school district and state are violating students’ fundamental right to equal educational opportunity. The lawsuit seeks to stop this Central Valley school district from denying basic instruction in reading to 1st and 2nd grade English learners and from using a fundamentally flawed and unproven method of teaching English to them.

The lawsuit, the first of its kind in California, asks that the program be stopped and also seeks to ensure that the state of California honor its responsibility to ensure that all school districts provide equal opportunity to a meaningful education for the state’s schoolchildren. The plaintiffs are represented by the ACLU of Northern California, the ACLU of Southern California, the ACLU of San Diego and Imperial Counties, California Rural Legal Assistance, Inc., the Asian Pacific American Legal Center, and the law firm of Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati.

“For young children, learning to read is the foundation for life-long learning. It’s been heartbreaking to watch students in my school lose so many valuable hours of learning to this flawed method. I want to make sure all our kids have the same opportunities for the education they deserve,” said Nona Rhea, teacher of the year at Roosevelt Elementary in Dinuba and plaintiff in the lawsuit. Rhea also has a grandchild being raised in a bilingual home.

In 2009, the Dinuba Unified School District adopted a program of English language instruction known as Second Language Acquisition Development Instruction (SLADI). No research supports the use of SLADI for students as young as 1st and 2nd grade. Dinuba’s use of SLADI attempts to teach English to very young children by providing instruction in complex grammatical rules and without offering any meaningful exposure to the way English is spoken and written in real-life contexts.

Moreover, teachers are not allowed to provide any reading instruction to their 1st and 2nd grade English learners during the first half of each school year.

While English learners are instructed in this unproven method, their peers receive vital instruction in reading. During the second semester of the school year, English learner students are abruptly moved into the regular reading curriculum, even though they have not been taught any of the previous reading lessons. These students are then expected to catch up with their peers who received regular reading instruction. Throughout the year, many English learner students are completely segregated from their English-speaking peers, except during recess and lunch.

Also suing the state and school district are two Dinuba families with students in 1st and 2nd grades who are English learners. Legal counsel has advised them to remain anonymous to protect their families.

“I want my daughter to learn to read English,” said one of the parent plaintiffs, speaking anonymously. “I want her dreams to come true and the doors of opportunity to open for her. And I know that can only happen if she learns to speak English correctly.”

Information reported by the Dinuba School District to the California Department of Education shows four out of five elementary schools in the district met the state’s English proficiency progress goals in 2009. In 2010-11, after instituting SLADI, just one of the five elementary schools in the district met this goal.

“Teachers and parents in Dinuba watched with growing dismay as this policy was implemented,” said Annie Ogata, a parent with children in the Dinuba schools and an individual plaintiff. “It isn’t right to have young English learners attempting to parse sentence structure, in isolation and out of context. These students should be read to, and they should be learning to read.”

Ogata is also an English teacher at Dinuba High School and Co-President of the Dinuba Teachers Association. She notes that, since 2010, she and other teachers repeatedly express concerns about SLADI to administrators and the school district. In April 2012 the DTA voted to formally oppose the program. “This lawsuit is our last resort,” Ogata said.

“Dinuba Unified School District is depriving English learner children of their constitutional right to equal educational opportunity,” said Jory Steele, Managing Attorney with the ACLU of Northern California. “By signing off on this fundamentally flawed and unequal program, the state of California is not honoring its constitutional obligation and is risking the future of these children.”

The suit is the first of its kind in California to challenge the failure of the State Superintendent of Public Instruction and Department of Education to ensure that English learners are taught English according to proven research-based approaches that will deliver basic literacy skills and access to core curriculum subjects. With fully one-third of all English learners in the nation enrolled in California’s public schools (over 1.5 million students), no state has a greater stake in these students’ futures.

The lawsuit was filed in the Superior Court of California, County of Sacramento by the ACLU of Northern California, the ACLU of Southern California, the ACLU of San Diego and Imperial Counties, California Rural Legal Assistance, the Asian Pacific American Legal Center, and with pro bono assistance from the law firm of Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati.