Plenty of people are scratching their heads, trying to figure out why the U.S. Department of Education is investigating the Beaufort County School District for possible discrimination against English-language learners.
The department's Office for Civil Rights is visiting the district office and several schools to gather information as part of its investigation, but is staying mum on what the alleged offense is.
Possibilities include denying parents who are not proficient in English access to school information; discriminating against students learning English during the school registration process; failing to provide a free, appropriate public education and discriminating against students by failing to provide an alternative-langauge program with adequate staffing.
It's an odd charge against a school district that has garnered a reputation for doing much to embrace these new students and help them achieve despite its struggle with inadequate funding.
While the state requires one English for Speakers of Other Languages, or ESOL, teacher for every 60 ESOL students, the district is unable to meet that ratio. It has only one teacher for every 80 ESOL students.
At issue is a state education funding formula that does not fully take into account the additional costs to educate students who do not speak English. And while next year's state budget will include more money for school districts with ESOL students, it is anticipated to only bring about $150,000 to the Beaufort County School District.
So the district has worked to become more efficient, sharing staff and resources among its schools. Traditional classroom teachers say they often re-teach concepts and often slow the classroom pace down so ESOL students can grasp the material. ESOL coaches train teachers on the best practices to use with students who are not native English speakers.
Some schools host "newcomers" classes for students who have just moved and speak no English. Meanwhile, a district ESOL center will be launched this summer where ESOL families students and families can get information, ask questions and get help adapting to school life.
Beaufort County schools with large enough populations of ESOL students break them into groups based on their level of English proficiency and work with them at their own pace.
District leaders say they want and need to do more, but lack the money. "Right now we are treading water to even to stay where we are in terms of the services we provide." said Terry Bennett, district director of grants.
Still, Superintendent Jeff Moss anticipates the U.S. Department of Education will be impressed with the many ways the district helps its ESOL students. And Eric Esquivel, co-chairman of The Lowcountry Immigration Coalition, said the district has done "tremendous work" to accommodate its growing ESOL population that has increased by about 20 percent during the past decade. The school district now has the second largest ESOL student population in the state.
If shortfalls are found by the federal agency, we anticipate the district will be quick to address them -- as it should. And any suggestions from the department or anyone else should be encouraged.
The district's ESOL population is projected to continue to grow. The sooner improvements are made, the better.