Officials Say School Violating Somali Students' Rights

An investigation by the U.S. Department of Education found that Springfield, Mass., schools were violating the civil rights of Somali students by failing to provide an adequate education. Ninety students shared a part-time tutor. The district says it is addressing the issues.

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The U.S. Department of Education gets about five thousand civil rights complaints every year. This month, they made a finding in what advocates call an extreme case. The Department's investigators concluded that schools in Springfield, Massachusetts, have been violating the rights of Somali students by failing to provide an adequate education.

From member station WFCR, Karen Brown reports.

KAREN BROWN reporting:

When Jean Caldwell retired a few years ago, she offered free tutoring to the Springfield Schools, and asked for the hardest cases. But when she got her first Somali child, she was amazed.

Ms. JEAN CADLWELL (Retired teacher): About every five minutes he was up and over to the water fountain, and I realized the running water was a miracle. All his life, his mother had carried any water the family was going to use in a jar on her head.

BROWN: A year later, that child, Abdullah Ali Isak (ph), is a shy second grader who's now used to running water, and is finally learning to read, but well below grade level.

Mr. ABDULLAH ALI ISAK (Student): Look at me. I am --

Ms. CALDWELL: It's got an R. Rrr.

Mr. ISAK: Rrrrr.

Ms. CALDWELL: Resting.

Mr. ISAK: Resting.

Ms. CALDWELL: Resting. Taking a nap.

BROWN: Isak is one of 300 Somalis from the largely uneducated Bantu Tribe, who left refugee camps in Kenya three years ago to resettle in Springfield. In addition to severe culture shock, the Bantus could speak no English and even the adults didn't read or write in their native language. That posed a significant challenge for the cash-strapped school district, which had to absorb 90 Somali children.

Dr. Nonyel Isya (ph) is assistant principal at Rebecca Johnson Elementary School.

Dr. NONYEL ISYA (Assistant Principal, Rebecca Johnson Elementary School): Given everything we have, I think we're doing the best we can for them. Getting them to perform at the level where most people are at, you cannot -- will take a little time, a little longer.

BROWN: But Jean Caldwell thought it needed to go faster. Last August, she filed a complaint with the Office of Civil Rights in the U.S. Department of Education. She claimed the Somali children were spread around too many different schools and were not served by the English as a Second Language curriculum.

Ms. CALDWELL: All the other kids speak Spanish, and maybe the teachers speak Spanish as a first language. So the kids are coming home and they're saying siente se to a visitor, which means sit down, in Spanish, as often as they're saying sit down. They're not distinguishing between the two languages.

BROWN: Caldwell enlisted the support of local Somali elders, such as Betel Hussein Ahmad. He says he was shocked when he visited Somali children in the schools.

Mr. BETEL HUSSEIN AHMAD (Somali elder, Massachusetts): They were sitting like a stone. They were sitting in the class, but they do not understand anything. Two years, the boy he was studying at school, and he don't know how to read the alphabet.

BROWN: The U.S. Department of Education found that teachers were never trained to teach Somali-speaking children, and couldn't tell what they understood. Some students were even put in French or Italian classes before they knew any English. Only one part-time Somali translator was available for 21 schools, and he often spent his time explaining forms to the Bantu parents.

But school officials say they had already begun to address Somali needs before the federal investigation. Sylvia Galvan runs Springfield's English Language Learner's Program.

Ms. SYLVIA GALVAN (English Language Learner's Program): The problem that we have with the Somali population is that we cannot find in the area enough leader people that can come and help us.

BROWN: One recent afternoon, a teacher's aid was sitting with a Somali kindergartner in the principal's office. When a Somali man from the community happened to enter the building she jumped up with relief. Finally, someone could help her discipline the boy.

Unidentified Woman: He's been yelling out in class, just making crazy sounds, pulling his clothes off, just not listening.

Unidentified Man: (unintelligible) He said, one of the children touched, you know, poked at him inappropriately.

Unidentified Woman: So, if someone's bothering you, you need to tell. You raise your hand.

Unidentified Man: That's what I told him.

Unidentified Woman: You raise your hand and you say -- who was it? Who did it?

BROWN: The problem, of course, is that Somali children often can't negotiate social issues on their own. But as part of an official agreement, the district has promised to hire a Somali translator for every school, and to cluster the children in fewer schools.

They've also promised to find a Somali-speaking liaison for families and to provide more extracurricular programs.

The Department of Education will monitor these promises until 2007. Meanwhile, Abdullah Ali Isak, the student Jean Caldwell tutors, will have to repeat second grade, something Caldwell dreads having to tell him.

From NPR News, I'm Karen Brown.

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