Blog: Latino Ed Beat

Lawsuit Says Illinois School District Had Segregated Gifted Program for Hispanics

Parents in suburban Chicago have filed a federal discrimination lawsuit against the Elgin School District U-46, accusing the district of running a segregated gifted program that placed elementary students whose native language is Spanish in a separate program from native English speakers. A trial is currently under way.

Former English language learners who had been classified as proficient in English were placed in the gifted program for native Spanish speakers along with children still classified as English language learners, The Daily Herald reported. This gifted program was known as the Spanish English Transition School Within a School (SET SWAS). District officials said the students did not meet standards to qualify for the general education gifted programs.

The Daily Herald reports that both sides have put gifted education experts on the stand. University of Texas at Austin director of bilingual education Alba Ortiz audited the program and testified that the programs were “institutionalized discrimination.” ”They are deemed English-proficient, so why segregate them from their English-language peers?” she asked.

But this week, University of Virginia professor Carolyn Callahan testified that the separate programs for native Spanish-speaking children were necessary because the children would fall behind in programs for native English speakers and needed bilingual support in Spanish and English.  The Courier-News reports that Callahan said programs were “language-based, not race-based.”

The Courier-News also reported that gifted teachers testified in support of the separate programs. Teacher Rachael Jackson said she would cry if the program ended. ”The students need the support,” she said. “They need to be in a place where they feel safe, where they feel confident, where they’re with other kids like them.”

At one point during the trial, the Courier-News reported that Superintendent Jose Torres said that the separate programs helped students feel more confident because they were with other students who looked like them. ”If that’s the case, we would have segregated schools,” U.S. district judge Robert Gettleman responded. “Brown vs. Board would have been wrongly decided.”

The Chicago Tribune reports that Latino students comprised about 27 percent of students in the gifted program in 2008-09, while they were 40 to 45 percent of the enrollment. The plaintiffs’ attorney said only 2 percent of gifted elementary students in the English-speaking program were Hispanic.

The lawsuit was filed in 2005, and also said that district boundary changes segregated black and Hispanic students into overcrowded classes and that black and Hispanic students didn’t have equal access to gifted programs.

Do your local school districts have gifted bilingual classes? I’ve visited a gifted class in Texas solely for bilingual students, so I know they exist elsewhere. But in the class I visited, the students were all classified as limited English proficient. In Elgin’s case, children who recently had been classified as English proficient were then placed in the separate gifted program for native Spanish speakers.

Is this a case of the district making a “separate but equal” argument in defense of segregation? Or was the district just trying to meet the language-specific needs of the Hispanic children?