A couple’s frustration over the education of their foreign-born sons is triggering changes to how the St. Paul School District serves its sizable population of English language learners (ELLs).
This week, Superintendent Joe Gothard signed off on a series of improvements as part of a settlement of a class-action lawsuit filed a year ago by George Thawmoo and Mary Jane Sommerville, and their two sons, who are Karen.
The St. Paul family will receive $12,500 under the agreement. But Thawmoo and Sommerville said in a statement that the case was not about money, but about their kids’ education and that of “other immigrant families who are often new to this country and unfamiliar with the school system and their rights.”
The pair’s advocacy, in fact, dates to the 2013-14 school year when former Superintendent Valeria Silva and her administrative team moved to mainstream more ELL and special-education students in general-education classrooms.
The lawsuit alleged that the district inappropriately placed one son, Lor Ler Kaw, in mainstream English and social studies classes at Como Park High School with students who spoke English fluently — even though he was reading at a second grade level.
It also accused the district of waiting too long to address what the parents suspected was a need for special-education services for their other son, Lor Ler Hok Koh.
They filed suit in U.S. District Court in July 2017 after the St. Paul Department of Human Rights and Equal Employment Opportunity found probable cause to believe the district discriminated against the students on the basis of national origin.
The two sides engaged in court-ordered talks, and came up with measures that include increased support for ELL students and the creation of a new districtwide specialist position focusing on the needs of ELL and SLIFE (students with limited or interrupted formal education) students.
The agreement also makes clear that students do not have to be in the U.S. for a specific period of time before they can be evaluated for special-education services.
The school board approved the agreement on Tuesday.
The 25-page document states: “The district expressly denies wrongdoing and liability, but seeks to avoid the costs and burdens of litigation and, with the plaintiffs, seeks to serve the district’s students well. The district believes this agreement is a better way to do that than engaging in further complex litigation.”
Aron Frakes and Chris Pham, attorneys with Fredrikson & Byron in Minneapolis, represented the family pro bono.
St. Paul Public Schools has taken other steps to improve services to ELL students, who comprise about one-third of the student population.
In June 2017, the school board took advantage of a late infusion of state aid to add 10 full-time-equivalent ELL teachers. This year, the district agreed as part of a new two-year deal with the St. Paul Federation of Teachers, to hire 15 new ELL teachers in 2018-19 and 15 more in 2019-20.
Under the court settlement, the district now will evaluate its ELL program annually.