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Civil rights complaint alleges inequity in schools’ language immersion programs

Will Jawando, who ran for one of Maryland’s Congress seats, has complained that his daughter and other students of color are disadvantaged by selective language immersion programs. (Evelyn Hockstein/For The Washington Post)

A former Obama administration White House aide has filed a federal civil rights complaint against the Montgomery County school system, alleging discrimination against his daughter and other children of color in the district’s highly popular language-immersion programs.

Will Jawando, who also worked for the U.S. Department of Education and recently lost a race for Congress in the Democratic primary, argues in the complaint that the high-performing Maryland school district violates federal law in the way it recruits and selects its language-immersion students.

The school system fails to publicize the opportunities in areas with high percentages of black and Hispanic students — or to “conduct meaningful outreach” — and many parents are unaware that such options exist, according to the complaint, which Jawando filed this week.

“As a result, many of the high-demand language immersion programs enroll disproportionately high numbers of white, non-poor students, while denying benefits of the program to otherwise interested and qualified students of color and those from lower-income families,” it says.

The complaint asks the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights to investigate, and it requests that the school system be required to enter into an agreement to expand access to, and better serve, African American and Hispanic students in elementary language immersion and other special academic programs.

The bid for federal involvement comes shortly after a new report on school choice in Montgomery County documented stark racial and ethnic disparities in a number of special academic programs, including language immersion. In recent months, school officials have hosted community forums, and parent reaction has been strong.

Montgomery school officials said in a statement Thursday that they could not comment on the specifics of the complaint but that it highlighted the great demand for the program. Nearly 700 kindergartners applied for about 300 language-immersion spots this year, they said.

The school system is reviewing the report’s recommendations, which will be considered by the school board. The complaint is “just one of hundreds of community comments” generated by the study, officials said, and the district will continue to work with the community on the issues raised.

An Education Department spokesman said the Office for Civil Rights does not publicly confirm whether it has received specific complaints; if an investigation is opened, the office informs those involved and the public as appropriate.

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Language-immersion slots in Montgomery are awarded by lottery, but siblings of elementary students already enrolled get automatic admission — a practice the district’s report said leaves fewer seats for others and “hindered equity of access.”

Districtwide, 31 percent of elementary enrollment was white, compared to 47 percent in immersion programs in 2013-2014, according to the report.

Jawando said in an interview that he and his wife only heard about the district’s language-immersion programs through a chance conversation at their daughter’s soccer game a few days before the application deadline in April.

The couple rushed to meet the deadline, wanting their daughter to become bilingual as early as possible. Jawando said in his complaint that research links language learning to higher academic achievement. Their local school in Silver Spring — Cannon Road Elementary — does not offer foreign language classes.

But their daughter was not selected for the Spanish immersion program at Rock Creek Forest Elementary, a school where the district’s report said more than 45 percent of 2013-2014 immersion applicants were siblings.

Jawando appealed the decision to school officials in May but has not heard back. He said he filed the complaint this week with the Office for Civil Rights because he believes the issue reaches well beyond his family’s experience.

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“This school system is growing so fast, and it’s diverse, and it’s one of the best things about this county and this state,” he said. But as student enrollment has increased, he said, “so has inequity.”

He is pushing for more language programs overall and more equity in the programs that exist.

At a news conference Thursday, Jawando detailed his complaint, flanked by his wife, Michele, and several other parents who spoke of the need for more publicizing of the programs and more space in them.

Parent Karla Silvestre described the immersion program as a gift for her two children, as it helps them communicate with their grandparents and with relatives in Guatemala. “I wish more parents would know about the programs so they could also enroll their children and have this wonderful benefit,” she said.

Jawando’s complaint points to recommendations made in the district’s report, including improving outreach, communication and recruitment to students from diverse backgrounds, and ending automatic admission for siblings. But it said school officials have “no concrete plan to remedy the discrimination and inequities” documented in the report.

“While MCPS may prefer to take a wait and see approach to community feedback, delayed action will mean that students of color will continue to be locked out of desirable opportunities for at least one more school year,” it said.

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A number of Montgomery parents with students in immersion programs have spoken before the school board in recent weeks to support automatic admissions for siblings. Many have cited the benefits of siblings attending the same school and speaking the language they are learning with each other at home. They have asked the district to expand the programs and do more outreach to minority families to achieve greater diversity.

Jawando said his daughter was offered a spot in a partial immersion program at Rolling Terrace Elementary in Montgomery — an option the family researched and decided was not a good fit. The 5-year-old will now attend kindergarten at a parochial school, affiliated with the family’s church, that offers language immersion, he said.