Iowa school district revises fluency list

Lori Phanachone is fluent in both spoken and written English. However, in March, Storm Lake High School in Iowa mandated that she take an English fluency exam because English was not the first language spoken in her home. “School officials told [Lori that] she [was] considered to be illiterate based on her refusal to satisfactorily complete the English Language Development Assessment.” The assumption by the school was that Phanachone, born in California, was not fluent in English because it is her second language. It’s an extremely racist assumption.

An honors student, Phanachone was suspended from school after refusing to take the test. According to Phanachone, “administrators… told her her college scholarships — $86,000 at Buena Vista University and more at Iowa State University, would disappear” if she didn’t take the test.

It turns out that the racist action taken by the Storm Lake School District was motivated by financial gain. Apparently, the school district actually receives funding (per student) for the number of students who English Language Learner (ELL) students. According to the Storm Lake School District Superintendent “the district is reimbursed about $750,000 a year, currently, for its approximately 1,250 ELL students, or an average of about $600 per year for each ELL student for four years.” There are 2,100 students total in the district.

Last month, the Des Moines Register reported that “Storm Lake school officials say they overestimated the number of students last year who were not fluent in English.” No kidding! What a shocker. The Storm Lake School District recipe for funding: take one student with English as a second language and place them into ELL without even finding out if they are fluent in English…or at least that’s how it appears:

Officials said 100 students, nearly a tenth of “English language learners” in the 2008-09 school year, did not deserve the label. They included an honor student who was punished when she refused to take a fluency test.

The label is significant because it qualifies school districts for more federal money and puts students on the hook for government-required language tests.

By my count, that means that the Storm Lake School District was receiving $60,000 per year at the expense of 100 students.

Storm Lake school officials say the controversy pushed them to speed up work on plans to deal with students who were not born in the United States or live in a home where English is not the primary language.

Let me get this right, to “speed up work”…”on plans deal with students”…sounds like bullshit to me. They wanted the money and they didn’t care how damaging it was to their students.

Thankfully, District officials and officials from the U.S. Department of Justice along with a commission that represents Iowans of Asian and Pacific Islander heritage signed a “mediation agreement”. The components of the agreement include the following:

– Evaluate students’ language abilities before they’re labeled “English language learners.”

– Notify parents when their children are labeled.

– Hire someone to oversee the education of students for whom English is a second language.

– Follow a new state guideline that says students who are “proficient” on English fluency tests – Iowa uses the English Language Development Assessment – do not have to be tested a second time.

Ummm. When exactly was the Storm Lake School District going to “deal with students”…oh I know, when they get called out for their racist tactics. If you reverse analyze the agreement it is depressingly apparent that the district is woefully inept or disgustingly good at using policies to make money off of their students:

  • They were not evaluating students’ language abilities before they were erroneously labeled as English Language Learners.
  • They were not notifying parents that their children were labeled (purely for funding purposes).
  • They did not hire anyone to oversea the education of said students (this is so wrong!).
  • It did not matter how fluent you were in English or any other language. The district needed students to take the test so that the school could get paid.

According to Lori Porsch, the district’s curriculum coordinator, “We’ve really closed the circle on some of those concerns.” Hardly! I bet the environment at Storm Lake High School is just peachy for students for whom English is a second language.

Phanachone signed the agreement as a witness and said that district officials did not apologize. I guess by “close the circle,” Lori Porsch meant that it’s business as usual at the Storm Lake School District. Ugh.

Phanachone said in the statement that was glad she had been able to help other students by taking a stand.” Bravo to Lori Phanachone for standing up for justice and paving the way so that other students do not have to go through the same experience at Storm Lake.