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Idaho school facing federal civil rights complaint flunked state audit months earlier

·8 min read

A state audit of English Language Learner programs in the Wilder School District last year found multiple issues with the program — which is also the subject of a federal civil rights complaint.

The State Department of Education is required to regularly audit federal programs at all Idaho school districts. During a routine review of the Wilder School District in the spring of 2020 — before COVID-19 shut down schools — the SDE found issues in 18 of 23 areas of the ELL program, far more citations than in other districts audited that year.

The audit results raise some of the same concerns parents later voiced in a January 2021 complaint to the U.S. Department of Education, including an allegation that Wilder was “providing no meaningful ELL instruction” to Wilder English Language Learners, which make up 33% of the district’s 500 students. The district is predominantly Latino.

The state auditors “did not find evidence” of materials or resources used to provide core English language instruction, audit documents say. There was no evidence of ELL courses offered to Wilder middle or high School students, state ELL coordinator and Wilder reviewer Maria Puga wrote in an email to reporters. And instead of approved English Language acquisition materials, Wilder students were learning from Rosetta Stone and other reading-specific programs.

“These materials are useful as intervention or supplemental tools, but cannot replace a core language instructional education program,” Puga said in an email Thursday.

And while Wilder said it was using an English Language model called SIOP to teach EL youth, reviewers did not find evidence this was used consistently district-wide, or that teachers had been trained on the model in the two years prior.

The review process meant to fix these problems lasted a year. The district closed the audit in March 2021 by submitting documents that addressed the state’s concerns.

But essentially, Wilder’s ELL students spent at least two school years — and a pandemic — learning in a program that did not meet federal standards.

Wilder officials dispute claims of subpar ELL instruction

Wilder officials contend that the audit findings were mostly surface level, the result of clerical issues or policies that weren’t specific enough to satisfy the SDE, not the result of fundamental issues with the district’s ELL programs.

But correspondence between the SDE and the district shows that the state sent Wilder’s plans back for revision until district documents met federal guidelines. For example, in February of 2021, Puga informed the district that its ELL program description still “needs additional work to develop a core language instructional education program.” Wilder federal programs director and elementary principal John Carlisle says that the district was providing this instruction, but the program descriptions simply weren’t explicit enough for the state.

The district satisfied many of the requirements when it turned in a comprehensive English Language Learner plan in the spring of 2021. Carlisle maintains that the plan doesn’t significantly change the district’s practices — it just provides better documentation of what the district was already doing.

The district did begin new SIOP trainings after the state review. Puga said Wilder also added two new EL courses for middle and high school students.

“This was a new development,” Puga said.

A parent advocacy group in Wilder has for years claimed the district is failing to properly educate children through Superintendent Jeff Dillon’s personalized learning and iPad program. They summarized their concerns in the January complaint to the department of education, which alleged the district was discriminating against English Language Learners.

Dillon refuted the federal complaint, saying the district and its board of trustees “disagree entirely with the claims.”

Referencing this state audit, he said, “All of our federal programs, including the ELL program … have continually been found in compliance.” Yet state officials were still working with the district to remedy problems in the ELL program at the time.

The U.S. Department of Education has not announced whether it’s going to investigate the complaint that families submitted against the school district in January. Erik Johnson, a lawyer representing the complainants through Idaho Legal Aid, said a federal investigator had been talking with families this spring. The federal agency refused to update reporters on the investigation process, or even confirm it received the complaint.

If the feds open an official case against the district, it will be added to an online database, a U.S. Department of Education spokesman said.

Wilder was not listed as a district under investigation as of late May, the last time the database was updated.

State found more problems than usual in Wilder’s ELL program

The SDE audits school districts once every six years to check if programs for student groups like English Language Learners, migrant students, homeless students and low-income students are in compliance with state and federal law.

A team of federal programs auditors visited the Wilder School District in March of 2020, in the week before schools across the state shut down. After looking through documents, visiting classrooms and interviewing students and parents, auditors documented at least 18 issue “findings” in Wilder’s ELL programs alone. The average number of ELL findings in other districts was seven, SDE Federal Programs Director Karen Seay said.

The district also had numerous findings related to its migrant education program, its program for serving homeless students, and the Title I-A program for low-income youth.

“The number of findings, especially programmatic findings, was concerning,” Seay said about Wilder’s audit.

State auditors found that Wilder’s written process for “identifying, assessing and placement” of eligible students into the ELL program didn’t meet the minimum requirements. They also found recordkeeping issues, like ELL screening tests and exit forms missing from some students’ files.

The state and school district both say that some of the findings were due to organizational issues. Carlisle said that the state lost some of the district’s documentation, and that Wilder staff struggled to use an online portal that the state uses for document submission. Puga said that Wilder did eventually prove that it was in compliance with some benchmarks that the state marked as issues, but the proof wasn’t submitted properly at the time of the audit, which the district had months to prepare for.

“A lot of times, with the state, they want to have the documentation of: How did this get done?” Carlisle said. “And sometimes when you’re working with students in a classroom, what documentation is done? Did you take a picture of that student while you were working with them? Did you have the student sign a document that says ‘yes, I was able to learn how to say the letter ‘R’?”

Puga said the Wilder staff was responsive to the federal programs audit, and worked with the state to address its concerns. She noted that the district was “in transition” during the ELL audit: Carlisle had just taken over the federal programs mantle from predecessor Tom Farley, and the district’s ELL program manager, Lynette Rivera, was also relatively new to the job.

“With Lynette and John, like, once they saw this and started, they worked really hard to try and get to that baseline and be where they needed to be in order to not have these indicators or these findings anymore,” Puga said. “I’ve personally been impressed with both.”

The SDE could withhold funding from a district if its federal programs are not in compliance, Seay said, but that would only happen as a last resort, if a district had “egregious” issues and “no apparent sense of urgency to change.” She’s not aware of the SDE ever formally withholding funds, but it has on occasion held up reimbursements to districts with finance-related federal programs issues.

Wilder officials frustrated by the lengthy audit process

While Wilder’s in-person audit lasted only two days, the process of correcting the 18 citations dragged out for a full year.

After the initial audit, Wilder sent documents to the state attempting to correct the issue findings. That was in May of 2020.

Dillon, the superintendent, said they didn’t hear back from the state until 2021.

On Feb. 1, 2021, Dillon received an email that the state wasn’t yet satisfied with Wilder’s federal programs, and the district had more work to do. The news came just days after parents filed the U.S. Department of Education complaint against the district.

Seay said it’s not unusual for a district with many findings to take a year to finish its federal programs audit, but that the SDE’s process was also delayed by COVID-19 and shifting responsibilities when the coordinator of the federal programs audits went on maternity leave.

Dillon said the district “got lost in the COVID shuffle.”

“If there’s something we haven’t been doing, or there’s something you need for us to put in place, or we’re missing a policy, let us know,” Dillon said. “When you wait a year, it’s like wow, what a missed opportunity, or it could be, where we could be doing something better that we hadn’t thought about before.”

Seay said it’s likely that auditors will return to Wilder next year to make sure that the district is in compliance. As of early June, state auditors hadn’t scheduled a return visit.

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