A weekend interview with Jose Fernandez, LULAC Florida state director
Jose Fernandez went to the State Board of Education this past week urging the board to have some consideration for English language learners when setting new school grading rules. (His comments are attached below.) Fernandez, state director for LULAC Florida, suggested that the proposals before the board to immediately begin counting ELL students' proficiency on the FCAT as part of the grading system would do more harm than good. He called for more time to find an acceptable solution. The board adopted the rule anyway, but also called for a task force to further examine implementation of the rules. Fernandez, also one of the named plaintiffs in LULAC v Florida Board of Education and the past Co-Chair of Orange County's Parent Leadership Council, spoke with reporter Jeff Solochek after the meeting about his views.
Were you at all satisfied with the way things went?
I would say it was 50-50 satisfaction. My recommendation was to postpone the amendment for a later date, at which we would have the task force do what had to be done in order to correct what they had not included in the amendment regarding ELL's and ESE's. But I am satisfied to the extent that at least a task force is being formed by the commissioner. He will name the people who are the ones who really know what is going on in their areas, superintendents, parents, community groups, those who are active in all these areas of ELL and ESE. It was great to see there was a unified effort on the part of the superintendents and the families and those who participated in the hearings, that we were able to get a definite consideration by the board to ensure that we got something to correct the problem it was going to create.
How would you define that problem?
The problem i was seeing is basically it was going to create schools to become F schools ... because we would not get, in the way and the manner they wanted the ELL's to learn English in one year, we would not get proficiency on these students. And they would not come out of Level 1 or Level 2 to reach the Level 3 that would put them at 25 percent of that school. They were definitely going to get an F. So you would see a lot of schools with a high concentration of ELL's, or a high concentration of ELL/ESE students, or a high concentration of ESE only. Within those schools that have those, would probably be affected as F schools. And that would really bring chaos to the school system.
That should not be the intention of punishing the schools. It should be the intention of rewarding the schools that have these type of students that they are trying to get them up to par. As you know, it takes 5-7 years to really learn and understand the English language, understand, write and read the English language. ... But they want these students to be effective within one year, to be counted into the school now. And that would be a disaster.
The federal government in its letters made it perfectly clear that they want everybody to be counted on their proficiency right away, and not just on their gains. Do you think that perhaps the state is being pushed around by the federal government too much?
No. I don't think so. I am in favor of the accountability because I wrote as LULAC Florida state director, we are in favor of the ESEA rule. But it is the implementation, and the specifics of the compliance with this waiver that makes us notify them, even though they did approve it, they should take into consideration everything applying to ELL's and everything pertaining to ESE. ... These things have to be looked upon and have to be treated accordingly. Not in a general sense. Because these are specific cases. It would affect these students into grouping them up and becoming a grade. ...
There are ways to do it and the federal government is not saying "You've got to do it this way, period." No. You've got to have accountability, but how are you going to account for it? It is left to the state to determine. What happens is they think they have to do it right away. It looks to us that they wanted to pass it because there was a legislative deadline of March 9 that they had to address the amendment and approve it. ... That was the effect we were saying. When the feds were saying, "You have until July and we are open to your suggestions." That is what they were saying. ... The only logical thing was to form a task force. ...
Isn't the state also looking at the same time at reducing the hours of training for teachers who teach ELL students?
As LULAC Florida we were addressing that. That should not be reduced. We should maintain that. That has been hashed through. Many years we have been fighting that. ... We should be maintaining that at 300 hours. In fact, that is in the consent decree LULAC vs. Board of Education 1990. ... This is part of that consent decree. This is federal law. This is there and has been doing good for these ELL's because they have been able to progress. They have been able to implement a good system, good bilingual centers and dual language centers, ESOL teaching and shelter programs which have been very effective ... in getting them out of L1 and L2 and into L3 and out of the FCAT system and be able to graduate. All these things that have been able to be done over all these years have been because of our consent decree. Now those specific things, ESEA, the federal rule has adopted those. But the Department of Education, even though they are told, tends to forget. ...
How long do you think you're going to have to fight the fight until they say, We're Florida, we have so many people speaking other languages. Maybe we should pay attention to this a little more.
And every year it increases. When I started this 12 years ago, I was just making sure the consent decree was implemented. ... We were fighting this in Orange County and trying to get the message to the other counties. We have been fighting this war for 12 years. We opened the doors. We are in the system. They are doing what they are supposed to be doing. Then all of a sudden 2-1/2 years ago things started changing 180 degrees. That's when we stepped up to the plate. And if we have to continue this war, we will until they finally understand that this has to be addressed and it has to be corrected according to what is specified -- what is best for the student and not what is best for the administration. It's what is best for the student. And here is where the sight is being lost in the Department of Education. They know what is supposed to be done. But when they communicate this to the upper levels ... they don't want to take it into consideration. ...
So the US Department of Education told them, "Yes, we're going to give you the waiver. But you have to make sure these ELL's and ESE's are taken care of. And they're taken care of in accordance with what you need to do." They give them that guidance. But then again they come back to the amendment which is totally out there in the open without anything of the corrections that are supposed to be according to the waiver. It didn't happen. So what is left? I wasn't pleased that they voted on it, but they voted on it because they had to meet the deadline of March 9. Now you have to come up with that task force that is going to be named by the commissioner to ensure we put up what is needed to be done and let that task force come up with the corrections. We hope that is going to take effect.