The US Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights is investigating allegations that the Winchester school system’s plan to assign hundreds of its youngest students to new elementary schools beginning in September discriminates against some of the children on the basis of race, national origin, and limited English proficiency.
Jim Bradshaw, a spokesman for the US Department of Education, confirmed the probe was opened on Feb. 15 and said, “The complaint is currently under investigation.”
The complaint, dated Dec. 19, was submitted with a letter of support signed by 111 Winchester residents, 95 of whom are foreign-born. Their countries of origin, listed next to their names on the letter, include Bulgaria, China, India, Russia, South Korea, Pakistan, Taiwan, Egypt, Morocco, Lebanon, the Philippines, and Brazil.
The complaint alleges that the district’s plan for new school assignments “targets and disproportionately adversely affects foreign-born families, English language learners, and students and families of color,” moving them “from schools that are high-performing to the district’s only elementary school that is not making adequate yearly progress under the [federal] No Child Left Behind Act.”
The redistricting plan sparked a public outcry, with some parents contending it would pit the haves against the have-nots, moving children of modest means to the Lynch — built 53 years ago and Winchester’s oldest elementary school — while shifting the children of some of the town’s most affluent families to the new Vinson-Owen, which is scheduled to open in September.
The redistricting plan, the complaint alleges, will “result in inequity and will close the doors for diversity.”
The Office for Civil Rights is investigating two legal issues: whether the redistricting plan violates Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits institutions that receive federal funding from discriminating based on race and national origin; and whether the district treated students and their families who are not fully proficient in English differently, on the basis of national origin, by failing to provide effective communication concerning the redistricting of its elementary schools.
District officials, who were notified of the federal investigation Feb. 20, were given 15 days to provide information on the redistricting process. In a letter dated Feb. 15, the Office for Civil Rights requested a list of all students affected by the redistricting plan “broken down by race, color, national origin, primary home language other than English, and English language learner [ELL] or limited English proficiency [LEP] status.” Investigators asked the district to indicate which school each student currently attends and which school each student would be moved to under the new redistricting plan.
In addition, the Office for Civil Rights is seeking a “narrative description of whether, and if so, how, the district considered the impact of its redistricting plan on students or families of different races, colors, national origins, and/or ELL/LEP statuses” and has requested “a copy of all information concerning the redistricting plan provided to the public, including copies of notices of the plan or of relevant public meetings, that was sent in languages other than English.”
If notification was provided only in English, school officials must “indicate how the District ensured that families who do not read or understand English were afforded adequate notice of the information concerning the redistricting, and an adequate opportunity to participate in any public meetings or discussions of the plan.”
Winchester school officials said they are confident the investigation will not change the school system’s redistricting plans.
“There’s no impact,” said Christopher Linskey, chairman of the School Committee. “My understanding is that they’re notifying us that someone has opened a complaint. They are investigating that complaint and fact-finding. No determination has been made as to the merits of the complaint.”
The Office for Civil Rights is responsible for determining whether recipients of funding from the US Department of Education are complying with federal law. Winchester is receiving about $1 million in federal financial assistance this year.
If the Office for Civil Rights does find evidence of discrimination, the next step would be to negotiate a solution.
“I am confident that they will find that the redistricting process was very lengthy, very thorough, very open,” Linskey said.
The School Committee on Nov. 5 voted 4 to 1 to embrace a map-based redistricting plan that will permanently shift boundary lines for the district’s five elementary schools. The changes will impact as many as 215 of the town’s 2,219 elementary students for the 2013-14 school year.
The committee’s decision came as a surprise to many parents who had followed the redistricting process. At the series of School Committee meetings and the public hearing that was held in advance of the vote, an A a series of meetings, an overwhelming majority of parents, and Superintendent William McAlduff Jr., had expressed preference for a parent-sponsored plan that would have moved kindergarten students out of crowded schools and into classrooms in buildings that are under capacity. The students would have returned to their home schools for the remainder of their elementary years.
The net effect of that “K-flex” model would have been that some kindergarten students would have been assigned to a school outside their neighborhoods, but would have returned to their home schools for the remainder of their elementary years.
The school district had worked toward adopting a redistricting plan for about a year, spurred by ballooning enrollment and to ensure that the new Vinson-Owen Elementary School opens in September with enough students to satisfy the Massachusetts School Building Authority, which is paying 40 percent of the $28 million project.
As district officials weighed their options for redistricting, the Winchester Multicultural Network urged the School Committee “to ensure that important multicultural issues are considered in the process of adopting and implementing new district lines.”
The nonprofit pointed to the “serious hardship” that it said a change in school assignments could create for families of limited financial means, and the impact that a sudden swell in the percentage of students who come from single-family households, households with two parents working outside the home, or households of limited financial means, would have on parent volunteer hours and PTO funding.
According to the Mass. Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, 78.8 percent of Winchester’s 4,396 students in pre-K through Grade 12 are white; 13.1 percent are Asian; 3.5 percent are multi-race non-Hispanic; 3.2 percent are Hispanic; and 1.1 percent are African-American. In addition, English is not the first language of 12.4 percent of all students; 14.9 percent are special-education students; and 5.9 percent are low-income under state guidelines.
Enrollment projections published on the Winchester redistricting website show the plan will result in a disproportionate number of high-needs students at the Lynch Elementary School, which has been characterized by state education officials as underperforming for failing to meet federal benchmarks for student progress.
Under state guidelines, high-needs students are those who receive special-education services, live in low-income households, or are English language learners.
The district’s projections show the number of high-needs students in grades 1 to 5 at Lynch will stand at 111 in September, higher than at the Ambrose, 58; Muraco, 61; Vincent-Owen, 72; and Lincoln, 79.
McAlduff said the school department is in the process of gathering the information requested by the Office for Civil Rights and understanding the issues involved.
“We will put the information together and take it from there,” he said.
Correction: Because of a reporting error, the amount of federal aid the Winchester schools received was incorrect in an earlier version of this story. Winchester received about $1 million for the current fiscal year.