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posted: 9/24/2012 6:11 PM

U-46 bias lawsuit readies for closing arguments

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A federal bias lawsuit alleging Elgin Area School District U-46 discriminated against Hispanic and black students when it revised attendance boundaries before the 2004-2005 school year is inching closer to a decision.

Witnesses for the families suing the district returned to the stand Monday to refute the testimony of witnesses for the school district.

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The witnesses on Monday rebutted defense testimony related to the district's English Language Learners program, gifted programs and the district's use of mobile classrooms.

The 2005 lawsuit alleges redistricting forced Hispanic and black students into older and overcrowded schools while also denying them access to gifted programs and adequate bilingual services. District officials maintain that the new boundaries were intended to create neighborhood schools.

However, Michael Alves, a Boston-area school assignment expert, said the redistricting added to overcrowded schools and that maps completed by demographer Milan Mueller before the boundary changes indicated already crowded schools.

Alba Ortiz, director of bilingual education at the University of Texas at Austin, said the district's Spanish English Transition School Within A School -- a gifted program for former ELL students -- was unwarranted because language barriers were removed.

"There was no basis of anything," Ortiz said. "They were segregated by their racial, ethnic background."

Ortiz disagreed with the testimony of Beatriz Arias, currently associate director at the Center of Applied Linguistics in Washington, D.C., who completed an audit in 2005 of the district's bilingual program and described the district's bilingual program as exemplary.

Furthermore, Dionnes Rivera, the district's director of bilingual education from 2002 to 2007, said the district did not have a consistent model for its English Language Learners program, which affected students, especially those who changed schools.

"If a school had a different approach to their education that could lead to a student being at a disadvantage," she said.

An expert on gifted education also said the district failed to provide gifted education opportunities to minority students. Donna Ford, a professor at Vanderbilt University, said there was a pattern of decreasing participation by black and Hispanic students from elementary school to middle school to high school.

Experts on the use of mobile classrooms also refuted statements by the defense that mobile classrooms provided an appropriate learning environment for students.

Edward Kazanjian, a school facilities expert and former school administrator, said mobile classrooms create a disadvantage and should be a last resort after the district considered changes to schedules or voluntary transfers. Kazanjian's testimony contradicted that of Sam Wilson, a construction and facilities expert who said the district's mobiles were in better shape than portable classrooms found in other districts.

"A lot of evidence -- visual evidence -- and some tests indicated maintenance was not done in an appropriate fashion," Kazanjian said.

Dates for closing arguments in the case, which has cost the district close to $17 million since 2004, were not immediately available Monday. Attorneys for the district have said they expect closing arguments in written form instead of before the judge.

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