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Feds Press Durham, N.C., Schools to Improve Services to Latino Families

The public school system in Durham, N.C., under pressure from federal civil rights authorities, must overhaul how it communicates with its large and growing population of Spanish-speaking parents.

With a population of about 5,300 students whose primary language is Spanish, the district has had just three qualified interpreters to communicate with those students and their families. The school district is home to about 33,000 students.

In a "voluntary resolution agreement" reached with the U.S. Department of Education's office for civil rights, Durham schools officials must take several concrete steps to improve the flow of information to non-English-speaking parents, as well as train all staff on how to identify and track the families that need school-related information —whether written or oral—provided in a language other than English.

The complaint about Durham came originally from the Southern Poverty Law Center last spring, which brought it to the attention of the civil rights office. In addition to the center's complaints about the district's failures to communicate with non-English-speaking parents, it alleged several instances of educators discriminating against Latino students because of their national origin.

Durham officials have to deliver on these changes swiftly. Many of them require draft plans—for things like developing a system to identify and catalog every parent who needs information in a language other than English—to be submitted to OCR for review within a month.

This case is just the latest action from the OCR. Last month, it announced this same kind of voluntary agreement with the Los Angeles Unified School District to overhaul its services for English-language learners. Under the leadership of Assistant Secretary Russlyn Ali, the office has been aggressive about investigating a range of complaints about school system practices.

When I spoke to Ms. Ali a few weeks ago about the agreement in Los Angeles, she said the office has about 75 active investigations going in districts around the country. Many, she said, will likely lead to these same "voluntary resolutions" that occurred in Los Angeles and Durham.

That's because the civil rights office is working closely with school districts to help them resolve issues around discrimination and other civil rights matters and craft long-term solutions, she said.

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