In what may become the defining action of his brief stint as interim CEO, Jesse Ruiz announced that the district will audit all schools – including charters – to ensure they are providing federally mandated services to English-language learners (ELLs) and properly spending funds meant to help them.
Ruiz called it an issue that “was nagging” him since he chaired the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE), a position he held for seven years until he joined the CPS Board of Education in 2011. Ruiz says he knew at ISBE that CPS “wasn’t doing justice by its ELL students.”
“We are now beginning a full audit of all schools in the district… that makes sure they’re utilizing those Title III funds properly and that they’re giving every ELL student in this district the educational services they deserve and by law are merited,” said Ruiz at Wednesday’s board meeting, after which he returned to his previous position as vice president of the CPS Board.
Budget documents show CPS took in about $14 million in Title III federal funds this year, which are used to help students working to learn English. Nearly 17 percent of CPS students require some sort of ELL services, with about two-thirds of those students in preschool through 3rd grade, according to district data from the 2014-2015 school year.
CPS also has addressed an “inequity in our rules,” Ruiz says, that would have prevented hundreds of English-learners from graduating high school. CPS officials did not provide any additional details or explain what rules related to graduation are changing.
The audit appears to have been triggered by a recent compliance monitoring report from ISBE’s Division of English Language Learning that found that CPS had only “partially implemented” a number of state mandates that ranged from screening students to determine their eligibility for services to ensuring that all students were assessed annually for English language proficiency.
In all, the district was found to have “fully implemented” just 12 of 45 components of ELL services that were considered applicable to CPS. The district was given 45 calendar days to complete a corrective action plan, which would have been due in May.
Ruiz says the state gave CPS until March 2016 “to comply,” although an ISBE spokesman couldn’t be reached on Wednesday afternoon to provide details.
Compliance lags statewide
The move to improve CPS’s ELL programming comes at a time when the district has been criticized loudly — most recently by members of the City Council Latino Caucus — for its lack of Latino leadership among the district’s top brass though nearly half of all students are Latino. (And it’s worth noting that while Latinos and ELLs aren’t mutually exclusive, the vast majority of ELL students across the state and in CPS are Spanish speakers.)
Advocates say the fact that ELL program issues persisted unchecked for years underscores why CPS needs more leaders who, like Ruiz, feel personally compelled to champion improvements for Latino students. Ruiz invoked the memory of his Mexican-immigrant parents when announcing the district-wide ELL audit.
“This is why leadership matters,” says Cristina Pacione-Zayas, education director for the Latino Policy Forum. “We don’t just want any Latino. We want qualified individuals and individuals that have experience and roots in the community and have preferably an educator background that really understand the implications, the pedagogy, the necessity for what the largest cohort in CPS needs.”
It’s not unusual for school districts to be out of compliance with ELL mandates. A 2012 Catalyst analysis found that not a single one of the 58 suburban school districts audited by the state in a three-year period met all of Illinois’ tough education requirements.
Pacione-Zayas says she’s heard of problems for years in CPS schools — both those that are run by the district and privately run charter schools.
Teachers and others inside schools say that qualified bilingual and ESL instructors “are sometimes pulled out of classrooms to sub, or pulled out to do translations,” Pacione-Zayas says.
“While I know that in certain circumstances that might have to happen, it happens far too often and potentially compromises the education of English-language learners,” she says.
Pacione-Zayas sits on a subcommittee of the CPS Latino Advisory Committee that she says is drafting recommendations to hold principals accountable for “attracting, supporting and retaining qualified bilingual educations and ensuring that they are used appropriately.”
ELL audit at UNO schools
The announcement of the new CPS audit comes just a few weeks after the Sun-Times reported that CPS had threatened to end the UNO Charter School Network’s ability to operate its 16 schools, following a separate district audit that found the group wasn’t providing adequate services to ELLs. Nearly one-third of all students who attend that network’s campuses require some sort of English-language education, district data show.
According to that story, CPS had determined that the charter school network employed just 11 teachers with the proper credentials needed to provide English language instruction — when it was supposed to have about 100.
Part of the challenge for the UNO network (which is also known as UCSN to differentiate itself from its founding organization) is that, historically, the network has used an “immersion” model for ELLs that relies on English-only instruction. A state law passed last year clarified that charter schools must — as other schools in Illinois — provide native language support to students in classrooms where 20 or more students speak the same language and are working to become proficient in English.
Charter school supporters had argued that the law was unnecessary as schools were already complying with less stringent federal laws.
But now, UCSN must ensure that more of its teachers are certified with a bilingual endorsement. And classrooms with fewer than 20 students who speak the same foreign language must be taught by instructors endorsed in “English as a Second Language” instruction, which is delivered in English.
Coming into compliance
UCSN says it was already in the process of putting an ELL compliance plan into place — and was on track to finish within the two-year timeframe required by state law — when CPS conducted its recent audit, says Yeni Jimenez, who heads UCSN’s Board.
In a statement, Jimenez says the district has now given UCSN one year to come into compliance. She says her organization submitted another action plan to CPS last week “to address the alleged issues” raised in the district audit.
She challenged the audit process and the district’s “underlying motive” for conducting the review, saying it was done “abruptly” over three days in June at seven of the group’s 16 schools.
“That audit was conducted without any teachers or students present,” Jimenez wrote. “We contrast this with previous EL audits performed by CPS at our schools, which took more than two months and involved interviews with staff, teachers and parents.”
She added that the audit “happened immediately after UCSN rejected a proposal” by Ruiz to merge UCSN with its former parent organization, United Neighborhood Organization (UNO).
(USCN and UNO have been embroiled in a bitter dispute for months, part of the fallout of a major scandal and multiple state and federal investigations related to insider dealing at UNO. Until this month, UNO had a contract to manage the USCN schools.)
Meanwhile, several teachers at UNO campuses have told Catalyst that little has been done in the past year to ensure compliance with the new ELL requirements.
Eric Saindon, who teaches tenth-grade social studies and is the union representative at UNO’s Garcia campus, says he’s heard “rumblings here and there” about how the network would move away from English immersion. But so far, he’s seen no changes.
“We’re still practicing the English immersion model, what’s known as the ‘sink or swim’ model,” he says. “I’ve heard they’re trying to do some stuff but haven’t seen anything come down the pipe yet.”
Saindon, who is studying to get his master’s degree in linguistically and culturally diverse education, says he’s in full support of UNO campuses changing how they teach English.
“I’m hopeful their new plan is going to be good for ELL kids,” he says. “And I think there are steps we could take to be in compliance with the excellent teachers we already have.”