Bilingual services are in such short supply at some Chicago elementary schools that students sometimes resort to tutoring their fellow classmates.
That’s one of the more damning accusations made this morning at a lively give and take between U.S. District Judge Charles P. Kocoras and students from Social Justice High School in Little Village.
The teenagers came to the judge’s wood-paneled courtroom to kick off a key public hearing that will help Kocoras decide whether to do away with 29 years of federal oversight of Chicago’s school integration efforts.
One of the key questions he must answer: Is Chicago Public Schools giving non-English speakers the bilingual classes and other services they need to thrive?
“When I came to the U.S., basically, I didn’t know anything,” Omar Nunez, the day’s first witness, told Kocoras.
“Did you speak any English at all?” asked the judge.
“No,” replied Nunez, who went on to describe how his school at the time, Eli Whitney, had a bilingual class with a teacher who rarely showed up.
Nunez says he’d cry at home and tell his mother he wanted to go back to Mexico.
The day’s next witness, 17-year-old Norma Emeterio, continued the sad story.
“In eighth grade, I was assigned to be Omar’s teacher,” she told Kocoras. “He did not know any English at all and I barely knew any Spanish.”
Other students spoke of torn textbooks, not enough books, overcrowded classrooms and bad teachers.
But alongside the depressing testimony, the hearing also featured the amusing spectacle of a grandfatherly U.S. District Court judge prodding teenagers to pay more attention to their homework.
But after the hearing, an attorney with the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund wasn’t in a laughing mood.
“The judge got to hear real stories from real children," said MALDEF Regional Counsel Ricardo Mesa. “And the stories sadly revealed the children weren’t receiving the services they’re entitled to under the law.
Hearings before Judge Kocoras are expected to last through the end of the month, with testimony from interest groups, CPS and lawyers for the U.S. Justice Department still to come.
Attorneys for CPS aren’t commenting while the hearings are ongoing.
The English language question isn’t the only issue Kocoras is weighing.
In a school system that’s now 92 percent minority, the judge must decide whether the district is giving all kids an equal chance to attend the city’s elite magnet schools.
Students who want to attend these schools submit a standard application. Most often, kids get assigned through a computerized lottery that takes racial composition into account.
CPS has long maintained that its student assignment policies have met the court’s demands and pushed for an end to the desegregation case.
The district has asked to be granted so called “unitary” status, which would free it from further court oversight.
If that happens though, CPS will face a whole new set of tough questions thanks to two landmark U.S. Supreme Court decisions in 2007.
The rulings invalidated student assignment plans in Seattle and Louisville, Kentucky that used race as a factor in school admissions.
So if Judge Kocoras rules Chicago is now in compliance, these decisions by the high court will call into question the very strategies CPS has been using in recent years to integrate.
District lawyers have said they’re exploring the possibility of maintaining diversity by assigning kids to schools based on income instead.