Teachers and parents describe some English learners in Arlington schools growing so frustrated that they eventually stop trying. (iStock)
Columnist

On a recent afternoon, an eighth-grade girl who is learning English stood in front of an Arlington County teacher and cried. She was upset because she hadn’t passed the standardized tests for her grade level.

“She had tried so hard,” the teacher recalled. “She didn’t want to tell her parents because her parents expect her to achieve.”

The teacher, who asked not to be identified because she feared losing her job, said she told the girl to sit down before she explained to her why it wasn’t her fault.

“I’m going to tell you a secret,” the teacher told her.

She then showed the girl a news story that described how the U.S. Department of Justice was looking into allegations that Arlington Public Schools had provided inadequate support for students learning English.

“For most of these children, it’s not their fault,” the teacher said.

On Monday, the Justice Department announced it had reached a settlement agreement with the Northern Virginia school district that would “bolster English language services to the district’s approximately 5,000 students who are not proficient in English.”

The agreement came after the Arlington School Board approved the settlement and followed a federal investigation into the district’s program that found “several compliance issues” with the Equal Educational Opportunities Act of 1974, which prohibits discrimination in schools.

“We commend the Arlington Public Schools for working with the Department of Justice to achieve this promising and positive result for the school district’s English Learners,” Assistant Attorney General Eric Dreiband said in a news release. “For the students who will benefit from the agreement, learning English is key to unlocking educational opportunities.”

Arlington should be commended. By entering into the agreement, the district has committed to improving the educational opportunities of some of its most vulnerable students — ones whose parents often can’t advocate for them because they don’t have the language skills or enough knowledge of their rights to do so.

But before we applaud that agreement and move on, some parents and teachers want us to know why it matters. They want us to know what has been happening to these children that warrant improvements and why they really hope the school system is serious about making changes.

One teacher I spoke with described students who are taught well below their grade level and who often grow so frustrated with inadequate services and personal progress that they eventually stop trying. Another said she knew of parents whose children brought home important papers in English for them to sign only to later learn those documents had allowed the school to place their children in special education classes.

“Each of us has so many stories,” that teacher said. “Most staff members don’t understand how big the issues are. Those of us who know are too afraid to say anything. Parents have no clue.”

Parent Mary Anne McKown, who adopted her daughter from Colombia three years ago, was one of three parents who spoke before the school board on the night its members approved the settlement agreement.

“I am here on behalf of countless parents, many of whom cannot advocate for their children because they don’t speak English or fear some type of reprisal,” McKown read from a prepared statement.

The complaint that launched the federal investigation was against Jefferson Middle School, but McKown wanted the board to know there were “systematic issues” that extended across the county. She told them about her daughter’s struggles in the High Intensity Language Training program at Swanson Middle School. This year, the family realized the 15-year-old, after spending three years in the school system, didn’t know how to use an English-Spanish dictionary correctly.

“Several of my daughter’s teachers have not been aware of the accommodations to which she is entitled,” McKown’s statement read. “When I inquired if they provide her with a bilingual dictionary, read aloud options, or additional testing time, I was told that it is up to her to ask for them . . . It is preposterous to expect middle-school children to advocate for themselves — particularly ones whose native language is not English.”

I spoke to McKown afterward about her daughter’s experience. She described the teenager and her classmates as spending most of their days segregated from their English-speaking peers and languishing in classes that often don’t challenge them.

“I’ve just been so disappointed,” she said. “My daughter has often felt like a second-tier student.”

Arlington is a nationally recognized school system that openly embraces its diversity. Students don’t only come to the county speaking Spanish. Many also speak Amharic, Arabic and Mongolian. If the federal government is asking the district to do a better job of supporting its English learners, then other school systems should also be paying attention, even if their own practices haven’t come under scrutiny yet.

The settlement agreement outlines what these children are entitled to and what is in our collective interest to provide them.

Under the agreement, Arlington, among other things, is required to: communicate with parents about program offerings and other essential information in a language they understand; adequately train middle school core content teachers of English Learner students so these students can meaningfully access grade-level curriculums: ensure English Learner students are timely and appropriately evaluated for special education services; and properly monitor and evaluate the effectiveness of its English Learner programs over time.

Arlington officials have noted that some of the requirements are already in place and that they have begun working on others.

During her brief time before the board, McKown requested they take one more step. She asked if they could conduct an anonymous survey to see how other parents, students and teachers feel about the county’s program for English learners and make the findings public.

“This is an important topic for the betterment and diversity of our community,” she said.

As for her daughter, McKown said her family has lost enough faith in the program for English learners that the teenager won’t be attending Arlington Schools next year. She will start her high school years in a private school.