The U.S. Department of Education is investigating the Beaufort County School District for possible discrimination against English-language learners, according to a department spokesman.
The department's Office for Civil Rights will visit the district office and several schools next week to gather information as part of its investigation, the spokesman said. The department also plans a forum Sunday on Hilton Head Island to hear from the community.
The spokesman did not provide further information on what led to the investigation, but said the department is looking into whether the district:
- Discriminates against parents and guardians who are not proficient in English on the basis of national origin, by failing to ensure they have access to the same information provided to parents in English.
- Discriminates against students learning English based on national origin during its registration process.
- Discriminates against students learning English based on national origin by failing to provide an alternative-language program with adequate staffing.
- Discriminates on the basis of national origin and disability by failing to provide a free, appropriate public education to students who are learning to speak English and have disabilities.
The district is aware of the investigation, superintendent Jeff Moss said, but does not know the details or why investigators are coming to Beaufort County.
He said he thinks the Office for Civil Rights staff will be "pleasantly surprised" with the district's services.
"I don't think they will find us in violation of anything because I think we do a really good job of providing those services and extra support to those students and families," Moss said.
"But I do think we can always continue to enhance our services. So if they have any suggestions at the end of the week, then we want to hear those."
It is unclear if the district could face any penalties or fines if it is found in violation.
The district's population of English for Speakers of Other Languages, or ESOL, has grown in the last decade from about 5 percent to about 20 percent this year, according to district data.
The district has hired additional staff and purchased special materials to work with the students and has expanded support services to help the families, district director of grants Terry Bennett has said.
Eric Esquivel, publisher of La Isla magazine on Hilton Head, said the district has done "tremendous work" to accommodate the growing ESOL population.
He does not know of any serious or systemwide complaints, he said, but has heard an occasional minor complaint against an individual staff member "not doing all in their ability to help" these students.
Both Esquivel and Moss said they hope the office will gather honest feedback at the forum, which will be held in Spanish, to help the district address any weaknesses.
Moss said one area he thinks the district could do more in is translating correspondence to the community and parents. For example, the district is looking at all of its documents to translate any not provided in both English and Spanish, he said.
"When we get a better idea of why they are here, what any issues are and what the suggestions might be, then we could easily come up with a checklist of things that need to be monitored and evaluated on a regular basis," Moss said.
Follow reporter Sarah Bowman on Twitter at twitter.com/IPBG_Sarah.