U-46 lawyers fire back at claims of segregation

Attorneys for Elgin Area School District U-46 worked Tuesday to poke holes in the testimony of a former director of the district's English Language Learners program who testified in the racial bias trial that the district failed to provide adequate services for bilingual students.

But a longtime ELL teacher in the district on Tuesday supported statements that the district, under former superintendent Connie Neale's direction, forced students out of the ELL program based on time.

Dionnes Rivera, who served as the ELL director from 2002 to 2007, told the court during cross examination on the second day of trial that the district forced ELL students to enter regular education after three years but without proper support as dictated by state law.

The district also was putting teachers who could not speak Spanish into bilingual classrooms and segregating ELL classes in mobile classrooms, Rivera said.

But U-46 attorney Michael Hernandez said two independent groups found the district had not violated any laws.

In 2007, the Illinois State Board of Education visited 20 of the district's schools with bilingual programs, Hernandez said, and found that the district was in compliance. The ISBE found that bilingual students were integrated and participated fully with English speaking classmates in content areas where English is not central to learning, like music, art and physical education.

Furthermore, Hernandez said, the Office of Civil Rights did not make any findings that bilingual students were segregated in mobile classrooms.

Rivera, who was on the stand for the second day, said she had not seen the ISBE report and that the Office of Civil Rights report did not concern building placement.

Dawn McCusker, a longtime ELL teacher in U-46, also described how the program changed under then-superintendent Connie Neale. Before Neale took over in late 2002, McCusker said, it was a model program.

“We were empowered and had a lot of input,” McCusker said. “We had a large facility next to the central office that was full of ELL teachers, we had a strong community ... and felt empowered to give input.”

But soon after Neale arrived, McCusker said, the climate changed. She said ELL teachers no longer were asked for input or expertise.

“We were constantly feeling the reactions of decisions being made by district administrators,” McCusker said.

One of the most significant changes was the mandated exits for students who had been in the program for more than three years. Plaintiffs in the lawsuit 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.

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