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updated: 3/14/2012 9:29 PM

Judge questions need for two gifted programs in U-46

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A federal judge Wednesday questioned the need for separate gifted programs in Elgin Area School District U-46 for native English speakers and their peers for whom English is their second language.

Federal Judge Robert Gettleman asked U-46 Superintendent Jose Torres during the ongoing racial bias trial Wednesday to explain why former English Language Learner students who showed proficiency in English and were identified as gifted were not entered into the general education gifted population with necessary supports at the district's School Within a School.

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"If these students are not gifted, they would be in general education -- or they're gifted?" Gettleman asked.

Torres, who had been superintendent of the school district for less than a year during the period in question, said some students who are not native English speakers, though they are fluent, may be reserved in an environment with more verbal classmates. In addition, Torres said, there is evidence suggesting students gain a sense of empowerment when they see students who look like them.

"If that were the case we would have segregated schools," Gettleman said.

Torres added that students in the gifted program for former English Language Learners, known as the Spanish English Transition School Within a School, were integrated into classrooms with native English speaking students for art, music and physical education -- subjects that do not require the academic focus of core classes like math, English or science.

But Stewart Weltman, attorney for the families suing the district, asked Torres if being around English-speaking peers was an important part of a the education of English learners.

Torres agreed but maintained students are very involved with English speakers in art, music and physical education.

In later testimony, Steven Klein, former director of the district's gifted programs, said students in the gifted program for former ELL students would not meet the criteria of the general education gifted program, which includes English language achievement tests.

"They don't have the language ability to succeed in the types of programs that SWAS (School Within a School) are developed for," Klein said.

Furthermore, Klein contradicted the testimony of a gifted education expert who testified for the plaintiffs this week that the district relied on one instrument to identify gifted students. Donna Ford, a professor at Vanderbilt University, said students needed to score in the 92nd percentile for consideration, which she said led to "severe underrepresentation" of black and Hispanic students. However, Klein, who developed the criteria, said the score was rolling depending on the year. He said the district identified a pool of the top 15-20 percent of students for further evaluation.

In addition to Torres and Klein, a former chief academic officer for the district also testified on behalf of the district. Barbara Bonner, currently a professor at Judson University in Elgin, addressed the district's bilingual and gifted programs, which the plaintiffs argued are discriminatory against black and Hispanic students.

Bonner said the district reached out to parents of Hispanic and black students to make sure minority groups were aware of the district-funded gifted programs that were available. In addition, the staff at each building was made aware of the programs available.

Defense attorneys submitted a motion Wednesday asking for a partial judgment on the plaintiff's case on English Language Learners. The plaintiffs argued the district placed Hispanic students in inferior schools after boundary changes in 2004-2005.

"We believe there is no evidence regarding the claims they made on ELL," said Edward Druck, attorney for the school district. The attorneys for the families have until March 23 to respond. Gettleman may decide on that part of the case before the end of April.

The trial continues Thursday, and will return to federal court on April 23.

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