At least 13 students who spend most of their school day in special needs classrooms did not receive the instruction they were due as English learners in the Adams 14 school district most of last school year.
That’s the main complaint in the latest federal civil rights investigation into the Adams 14 school district. Adams 14, which has long struggled to comply with other civil rights agreements stemming from past investigations, is also facing possible drastic action by state officials trying to address lagging student achievement.
In a response to the complaint, district officials acknowledged an error that led to students at Adams City High School not being enrolled in required classes. The district response states that district officials discovered the problem in April and have been working on addressing it since then.
But the complaint that the U.S. Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights received also alleges that after the district tried to make up the lost class time, it then cut other required services during the summer to do it.
The district has provided the federal government with data it says can disprove some of those other complaints. However, the district declined to provide Chalkbeat the data, which it said included protected student information.
Federal investigations can sometimes take years to produce findings and, if they find a violation of civil rights laws, to negotiate a remedy.
Students can be vulnerable, advocates say
In Adams 14, almost 38% of students with special needs are also designated as being English learners, or about 5% of all district students.
Paula Christina, a child and family advocate for ARC of Adams County, said that students who are English learners and also have special needs can sometimes be more vulnerable because families struggle just to overcome language barriers in understanding their rights and then advocating for them.
Separately, she’s heard of Hispanic parents who are talked into signing forms that they don’t understand, but then learn that may have given the district permission to not offer services to their children under special circumstances.
Robert Lundin, the district’s spokesperson who is now also in charge of overseeing compliance with Office for Civil Rights complaints, said the district did reach out to all families of students affected by the error to explain and offer makeup services.
The district argued in part that the summer compensatory services are not required and are determined in meetings with parents.
“As it is not a mandatory program for their students to attend, parents make the ultimate determination of whether their students shall participate in” an extended school year, states the district’s response to federal investigators.
Christina said all parents of students with special needs had a particularly frustrating summer dealing with districts that tried to make up services not offered during pandemic disruptions.
“Districts said ‘absolutely, your child is entitled to these services’ — but then they make them virtual,” Christina said. “It’s just like ‘how can we check the box?’”
And even when in person, she’s finding that families are keeping children home from school for a variety of reasons.
In one recent case, she said, the mother of a student in Adams 14 was surprised that no one from her school or district had reached out to her after she had kept her student home from school for more than a week because of safety concerns related to the child’s seizure disorder and the mother’s fear there was not enough supervision during recess.
“There has to be some ethical practice to honor services these kiddos need,” Christina said. “That’s not even talking about, are they quality services? Are they really working on goals and objectives?”
District coping with followup from previous cases
The federal government is still monitoring Adams 14 as it rolls out improvements in English language development instruction, after finding previous efforts insufficient.
In one of the district’s older cases regarding the identification of students who qualify as English language learners, the district finally got approval for its new language education plan in the fall of 2020.
Lynnette Steinhoff, Adams 14’s director of special education, said that the district is reviewing how it served students who are “dual identified” as having special needs and being English learners, and discovered “a gap” in April.
Policies and practices hadn’t been updated to match new guidance from the state about identifying and evaluating students. There was also a concern that work is being duplicated in different district departments.
So Adams 14 is now negotiating a contract with a consultant to evaluate the district’s systems.
Tonia Lopez, the director of culturally and linguistically diverse education at Adams 14, said the district is trying to be proactive.
“It’s us looking at the systems. How are we coming together to talk about kids,” Lopez said. “Are we doing it in a smart way taking account of all their needs and all their gifts?”
District officials said they want the consultant, RISE PD, to suggest ways to improve the district’s systems for serving dual-identified students and possibly to train district leaders and teachers.
The district this fall also rolled out a new system that alerts administrators every week about any English learner who is not enrolled in an English language development class, to prevent students from falling through the cracks in the future.
Read the district’s response to the complaint:
Yesenia Robles is a reporter for Chalkbeat Colorado covering K-12 school districts and multilingual education. Contact Yesenia at firstname.lastname@example.org.