Former U-46 superintendent Neale testifies in bias case

The former superintendent of Elgin Area District U-46 who spearheaded the boundary changes that are at the center of an ongoing bias suit against the district testified Monday during the first day of the bench trial in federal court.

Connie Neale, who served as superintendent from 2002 to 2007, gave evidence related to the district’s English Language Learners (ELL) program.

Plaintiffs in the suit filed in 2005 claim the district discriminated against Hispanic and black students by sending them to older and overcrowded schools, providing inadequate bilingual services and denying them access to gifted programs after boundary changes were approved in 2004.

Federal Judge Robert Gettleman is presiding over the bench trial that began Monday.

Stewart Weltman, attorney for the plaintiffs, questioned Neale on the district’s criteria for moving students from the ELL program to a general education classroom.

A former director of the district’s ELL program testified earlier Monday that Neale gave a directive to remove all students who had been in the program for more than three years, regardless of English proficiency.

Neale denied implementing an exit program based on time. The district, Neale said, developed a strategy to ensure children were proficient in English after three years in the program to meet requirements of the federal No Child Left Behind legislation.

“It was never the intent,” Neale said. “We wanted kids to be proficient after three years of English.”

The former superintendent who left the district in 2007 for undisclosed medical reasons also said she was unaware of overcrowding in bilingual classrooms across the district or underrepresentation of minority students in gifted programs and at high school academies.

Dionnes Rivera, director of the ELL program from 2002 to 2007, testified how the district’s ELL program changed after Neale became superintendent in late 2002.

Rivera, who is now an assistant professor at Aurora University and chair of the university’s bilingual teaching program, told the court that after 2003 students were not transitioned into regular classrooms with native English speakers. Instead, ELL students were instructed in English only without supports in their native language.

“Dr. Neale told me the program is not doing well, children are not learning English, teachers are not doing a good job — they’re not teaching enough English,” Rivera said. “She wanted to change the program because kids could do better.”

But Rivera said she knew students were not ready to move to a regular classroom.

“I went home crying,” Rivera said. “I could imagine what impact this would have on kids’ lives. I knew they were not ready to exit the program because they were scoring below the 50th percentile, and they would not be successful in a regular classroom. But I had to take them out because she gave me the directive.”

In response to Rivera’s statements, Neale called Rivera “protective” of the existing model.

“She did not understand the impact of No Child Left Behind,” Neale said.

The trial continues Tuesday with plaintiffs expected to present evidence and witnesses through the week.

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