After a rough year in the spotlight, the program overseeing the education of foreign-born students in the St. Paul Public Schools has gotten a bit of a boost this school year. But the district still faces court-ordered settlement talks in a parent class-action lawsuit.
Ten new teachers have been hired to work with English language learners (ELL) at seven schools in the state’s second-largest district.
Yeu Vang, director of the district’s office of multilingual learning, said this week that the teachers are “highly qualified and enthusiastic” and that they have been deployed at secondary schools selected in consultation with principals, teachers and others.
The district was sued in U.S. District Court this summer by a family demanding changes in how the school system serves students who now make up about one-third of its population.
George Thawmoo, who filed the suit with his wife, Mary Jane Sommerville, and their two sons, Lor Ler Kaw and Lor Ler Hok Koh, who are Karen, said they had yet to hear of significant improvements.
“I am not aware of any changes the school district has made to its ELL program to remedy the problems we identified when the ELL students started the new school year a couple of weeks ago,” he said in a written statement.
His family’s suit alleges that the district inappropriately placed Lor Ler Kaw in mainstream English and social studies classes at Como Park High School alongside students who could speak English fluently — despite the fact that he was reading at a second-grade level. It also accuses the district of waiting too long to address what the parents suspected was a need for special-education services for Lor Ler Hok Koh.
The suit was filed after the St. Paul Department of Human Rights and Equal Economic Opportunity determined in May that there was probable cause to believe the district discriminated against the students on the basis of national origin.
The family’s allegations were not the ELL program’s only cause for concern in 2016-17. A state audit also uncovered shortcomings in the program, and the St. Paul Federation of Teachers led a petition drive promoting changes that included greater transparency in program allocations and a “consistent, well-articulated six-year graduation path” for refugees whose education has been limited or interrupted.
A week ago, the district filed its response to the lawsuit, refuting claims that it had denied the students an equal opportunity to an education or caused them harm. It also said it disagreed with the Human Rights Department’s findings and noted that the findings and conclusions were not binding in federal court.
On Monday, U.S. Magistrate Judge David Schultz issued an order requiring the two sides to discuss a settlement in monthly sessions, beginning in October. If talks fail, a trial could begin in November 2018. The order calls for Thawmoo and Sommerville to attend, as well as Vang or Gail Ghere, the district’s interim special-education director.
The district’s move to add the 10 ELL teachers came late in what had been an otherwise difficult budget-cutting process.
Johnson and Harding high schools on the East Side, as well as Humboldt High on the West Side, each received two new teachers. Four other schools — Linwood Monroe Arts Plus and Como Park, Central and Highland Park high schools — each got one. All began work on Aug. 28, with “clear expectations” outlined by the district to school principals, Vang said.