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Civil Rights Officials: Texas Charter School Operator Excluded ELLs

The U.S. Department of Education has hammered out a deal to address concerns that English-language-learner students and students with disabilities were underrepresented in schools run by the largest charter school operator in Texas.

Investigators with the Education Department's office for civil rights found that Harmony Public Schools' admissions officials enrolled students with disabilities and those with limited English proficiency at roughly half the rate of nearby traditional public schools.

Based in Houston, Harmony operates 43 Texas charter schools that enroll more than 28,000 students on campuses scattered throughout the state.

As a result of the investigation, Harmony leaders agreed to a nine-page resolution agreement that would modify their admissions policies and placement procedures for ELL students and students with disabilities to provide equal access, and undertake action to ensure that ELL students are properly identified and receive improved language instruction.

The probe concluded that admissions policies at Harmony schools required students to provide documentation, including the student's birth certificate, social security card and proof of residency, which could discourage enrollment because of fears parents, guardians and students had about revealing their immigration status. Some campuses also failed to provide translated admission materials or an interpreter to help parents with limited English language skills, investigators reported.

 "Like all public schools, Harmony's charter schools must be open to all students, including ELL students and students with disabilities, and must provide students with the important educational services they need to fully participate in the schools' educational programs," said Catherine E. Lhamon, assistant secretary for civil rights. "OCR will work closely with Harmony as it implements this agreement for the benefit of thousands of current and future charter school students in Texas."

Harmony school leaders agreed to the resolution in late October. Officials there said they have undertaken a number of reforms and improvements since the OCR launched its probe in August 2011, and that enrollment numbers cited in the agreement are more than three years old.

Harmony operates 43 Texas charter schools that enroll more than 28,000 students.

As part of its investigation, the federal agency examined 2011-12 school year enrollment at 18 Harmony campuses, and found that English-language learners made up just 11.5 percent of enrollment at those Harmony schools, compared with 22.5 percent in the public school districts where those schools were located. Less than 3 percent of Harmony's students had disabilities, compared with 7.3 percent in the traditional public schools, the investigation found.

School officials now report that the percentage of ELL students currently enrolled in is 19.9 percent and enrollment of students with disabilities is 5.3 percent.

"The agreed resolution between OCR and Harmony confirms and acknowledges improvements, policies and procedures already in place and is another step in the furtherance of Harmony's ongoing commitment to a high quality education for all Texas children," school officials said.

The civil rights office will continue to monitor the agreement until its staff determines that Harmony is in full compliance with the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which protects people from discrimination based on race, color or national origin, and Title II of the American Disabilities Act of 1990.

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