Cicero teacher Sandra Davila quit her job in December to draw attention to what she considers deep problems in the school district’s bilingual program.
Her training didn’t match the curriculum, she said, and the curriculum didn’t seem to match the goals of the bilingual program. She was pushed to teach without the proper manuals and materials, Davila added.
“The program itself says that you have to have a copy of the required readings for the kids — one per kid,” she said. Instead, Davila had to project the reading onto a Smartboard for her six-year-olds. “We didn’t have the materials.”
Davila started in Cicero School District 99 in August after teaching earlier in her career at a highly respected dual-language program in the Chicago Public Schools. She left Cicero after only four months due to “alarming issues and concerns with student intimidation,” she said.
Davila said she saw kids berated for speaking with an accent in English, which is one of a host of concerns echoed by a community group that filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights. Parent Gerardo Vences said his six-year-old daughter doesn’t want to go to school anymore because her teacher gets mad that she can’t speak English.
Now, the federal government is looking into possible civil rights violations across all of Cicero’s elementary schools, investigating claims that its bilingual education students are being discriminated against.
The investigation by the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights was launched Dec. 30, just before President Barack Obama left office. Its fate under President Donald Trump’s administration is uncertain. Civil rights advocates nationwide have expressed fear that the Trump administration could dramatically shrink the role of the Office for Civil Rights and severely limit federal investigations. Trump’s recent decision to rescind protections for transgender students in schools further stoked those fears.
This could impact Cicero's school district, which is 93 percent Latino. More than half its 12,470 students are considered English-language learners, one of the highest percentages in Illinois. The school district has struggled before with complaints about its ability to adequately educate these students. A 2013 audit by the state found a laundry list of problems, and the feds investigated once before, in the late 1990s.
A spokesman for the U.S. Department of Education said it is still monitoring the district as a result of that case.
Growing demographics and growing concerns
The Cicero case also highlights broader demographic and civil rights dynamics that go far beyond this suburb.
“People need to pay attention to this,” said Delia Barajas, co-founder of the community group Ixchel, which filed the complaint last summer that sparked the federal investigation.
Barajas points to growing Latino and English-learner populations in the suburbs that are reshaping schools there.
“We have Berwyn, Lyons, Proviso, Glendale Heights, Waukegan -- that’s why this is so important, to create awareness,” Barajas said. “This could be a model for other folks in different communities, in Latino communities and communities of color.”
The majority of Illinois’ 200,000 bilingual education kids live in Chicago’s suburbs. The number of English learners in Chicago has actually declined over the last decade, but in the rest of the state, numbers are up 60 percent, according to state data.
Barajas had six children attend Cicero schools. When they hit college, they were unprepared, she said. She was disturbed to see recent state test results showing just 4 percent of Cicero’s bilingual students are proficient in English. The statewide rate for bilingual education students on the same exam was 9 percent. Among all students in Illinois, 36 percent were proficient in English.
Earlier this month, parents of bilingual students in Cicero packed a lunchroom for a parenting workshop. Barajas was there, passing out flyers about the civil rights investigation, which many Cicero parents had not heard about.
Cicero District 99 Supt. Rudy Hernandez was there, too. He told parents the district is making changes to its bilingual education program. Until now, he said, the goal of the program has been to transition children from Spanish into English-only classes.
Hernandez said he wants to move the district toward a dual-language model.
“Now we’re going to be able to do what you’re asking us to do — teach my kids Spanish, and the values of the culture. But also teach them English at the same level, with the values of the American culture. So that they can have two languages and be dominant in two languages,” he told one mom.
Hernandez said that requires re-training for teachers, a process he said the district has already begun. The district will pilot the dual language approach at two schools next year, he said, adding that the goal is to eventually expand to all 16 schools in the district.
Hernandez said he’s proud of the district’s current bilingual program. And he said he would never tolerate a lack of materials or children being ridiculed.
“Our teachers are the most caring and kind people,” said Hernandez, who felt the sting of discrimination himself as a schoolkid in a bilingual program in Chicago, where he said kids like him were seen as an “add-on,” as strangers.
He said Cicero is cooperating fully with the Office for Civil Rights investigation. The district denies any wrongdoing.
History of complaints …
This is not the first time government monitors have looked into how Cicero educates its English learners.
The Illinois State Board of Education found a long list of problems during a 2013 audit of Cicero’s bilingual education program.
Among the audit’s findings were:
The district wasn’t testing or tracking bilingual kids properly.
Bilingual teachers may not have been present to help determine whether bilingual students needed special education.
The bilingual program itself didn’t consistently include all the components required by law, such as the mandate that core subjects be taught in both English and students’ native language.
Spanish language-arts instruction did not follow standards.
Cicero quickly submitted a plan for correcting those problems, and the state signed off and closed the case just two months after its initial review, during summer vacation, with no further monitoring.
The U.S. Department of Education will be examining many of the same concerns raised in the state audit. But it emphasizes that the existence of an investigation doesn’t indicate any findings.
The Cicero case is one of more than 4,000 open investigations nationwide involving race, gender or special education civil rights issues. President Obama’s administration handled an unprecedented number of these cases. His administration also issued high-profile guidelines concerning civil rights in education, forcing colleges to wrestle with sexual assault policies; trying to prevent schools from handing out harsher punishments to black and Latino kids; and ordering schools to treat transgender students consistent with their identity.
Conservatives considered many of those actions an overreach by the federal government and are pushing for a rollback, as the Trump administration did this week with protections for transgender students in schools.
But Sarah Schottle, an attorney with the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund in Chicago, said the Office for Civil Rights plays an important role in the civil rights landscape in education. Growing numbers of English learners in the suburbs is not really a protection against civil rights violations, she said.
“Sometimes resources are stretched very thin, and sometimes the administration of the school just isn’t providing those services, and the parents — no matter how many there are — may not have the personal resources to enforce those rights,” Schottle said. “It’s helpful to have the Department of Education behind those investigations.”
Schottle said the feds can get information and demand accountability without resorting to a lawsuit. That’s something individuals and civil rights groups cannot do alone.
… And limited results
But there are limitations.
Shockingly, there is an older civil rights case in Cicero dating back to 1996, also alleging discrimination against bilingual education students. The district and the Office for Civil Rights came to an agreement about what should be done in 1999; the federal government is supposedly still tracking Cicero to make sure it complies.
District officials did not respond to questions about the 1999 case.
Barajas, the community leader who helped get the current investigation going, had no idea about the older case when she started all this.
“Twenty years!” Barajas said. “Are you gonna take 20 years to investigate our case? Are you gonna be monitoring 20 years, and things will stay the same? And that’s what’s disturbing. If it’s a true monitoring case, you should be on top of that. You just don’t allow kids to fail.”
Barajas now feels like her little community group has got to keep everybody accountable -- Cicero, the state, and the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights.
Linda Lutton covers education for WBEZ. Follow her @WBEZeducation.