Wednesday, March 16, 2016

English Language Learners

Required professional development courses vary greatly in quality, so it is a real delight when a day devoted to accumulating necessary Continuing Legal Education credits turns out to be a truly fascinating series of lessons in areas that attorneys working in the field of education and special education don't always consider.

Such was the case yesterday at the Practicing Law Institute's School Law Institute. Discussions about sexual assault on campus, transgender youth in public schools, the use of police authority and arrest powers in schools, and how changing family dynamics make deciding who is the "client" in an educational matter complicated, all were extremely well-presented. So was the more expected discussion of new developments in special education case law.

One particularly interesting topic was presented by Abja Midha, Esq. of Advocates for Children of New York, where she is Director of the Immigrant Students’ Rights Project, which works to protect English Language Learners’ and immigrant students’ access to educational programs and improve their educational outcomes. The Project has numerous resources available - many in multiple languages - and is involved in policy initiatives as well.

Ms. Midha noted that not all children who are English language learners (ELL) are immigrants. Some were born here to parents who speak languages other than English. And some children who are proficient in English have parents who have limited English proficiency and require translation services to be able to access necessary information about their child and the school system.

Federal statutes and case law have created significant rights for ELL. In the 1974 U.S. Supreme Court case  Lau v. Nichols, (414 U.S. 563), brought by non-English speaking Chinese students in the San Francisco public schools, Justice William O. Douglas' opinion noted, “There is no equality of treatment merely by providing students with the same facilities, textbooks, teachers, and curriculum; for students who do not understand English are effectively foreclosed from any meaningful education. Basic English skills are at the very core of what these public schools teach. Imposition of a requirement that, before a child can effective participate in the educational program, he must already have acquired those basic skills is to make a mockery of public education.”

The day's presentations on all topics will be available in a couple of weeks as an "on demand" program. The Practicing Law Institute offers scholarships to selected programs for attorneys in the nonprofit sector and others.

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