Parents Invoke ‘Brown’ in Lawsuit over Closure of RI School for English Learners

Federal class-action suit by Spanish-speaking families claims looming shutdown of Providence HS violates Equal Educational Opportunities Act.

Students protest the scheduled closure of 360 High School in Providence, Rhode Island, at the end of the academic year. (Mildred Suchite)

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The impending closure of a small Rhode Island high school has prompted some rare pushback: Spanish-speaking families have brought a federal class-action lawsuit against the Providence Public School District, Providence School Board, state Department of Education and state education commissioner under the Equal Educational Opportunities Act of 1974. With an argument that traces a direct line back to Brown vs. Board of Education, the plaintiffs are claiming that the shutdown of 360 High School violates the students’ and their families’ right to an equal education.

Typically, the act is invoked after a denial of guaranteed services. But these plaintiffs are bringing a case to preserve a school that they say already meets their needs. Attorney Jennifer Wood, director of the Rhode Island Center for Justice, said the act codified in law that schools must remove barriers for English learners and their parents. The act was based on the Supreme Court’s ruling in a 1973 case called Lau vs. Nichols, which descended from Brown and determined that failing to provide supplemental language classes violated the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the 14th Amendment.

Describing an “arc of history” from Brown through Lau to the 1974 legislation, Wood said, “Each one of those redefines who gets to be in public schools and how we are going to fully include them.”

In February, Providence district leaders, under state oversight, unexpectedly announced that 360 was slated for a “merger” at the end of the academic year. Students, but not teachers or administrators, would be absorbed into the Juanita Sanchez Educational Complex’s new Life Sciences Institute. 

District and state leaders said closing 360 would benefit its students by providing them access to programs Juanita Sanchez runs through partnerships with the state Department of Health, alongside internships and research opportunities with local industry collaborators, labs and hospitals. They cited 360’s 16% dropout rate, 75% graduation rate and 1.5% math and 8.2% English proficiency scores. “I have to make some very tough decisions,” Superintendent Javier Montañez said at a City Council meeting. “I’m going to do everything I can to protect my students.” The merger was estimated to save the district $1.5 million to 2 million.

But 360’s families and staff were not convinced. Math teacher Ellen Foley, who has worked at the school since its founding nine years ago, said in an interview that it follows a clear philosophy: “You’re building a community when you build a school.” In a district where students choose their high school at the end of eighth grade, 360’s families specifically selected the school in part due to its reputation for supporting English learners. The students — nearly half of whom don’t speak the language at home — take English classes that are co-taught by ESL teachers, and Student Council meetings are conducted in English and Spanish. 

Hundreds of alumni, parents, teachers, staff and students attended meetings of the school board, City Council, state Education Department and state legislative committees to plead for the closure decision to be reversed. There were protests and rallies. Some meetings required overflow rooms and were so crowded that police were called. At one meeting, 360 senior Michael Isom said, “They didn’t let me speak and they didn’t let my mother speak. They don’t let certain people speak.” 

Still, community members advocated wherever they could be heard. At school board meetings, they donned custom T-shirts and passed out bright orange and blue stickers proclaiming “Save 360.” They pointed to data showing that 360 outperformed the district in nearly every category in terms of how community stakeholders feel about their schools.

After Wood learned about the school’s forthcoming closure from student activists, she attended a February school board meeting that lasted nearly four hours. She listened as parent Lucia Mejia told the board through a Spanish translator that her nonverbal son was confused about the closure and testified to “the love that he has for going to school.”

But at every meeting, district and state leaders repeated that their decision to close 360 was irreversible, and families began to look for other options. Wood met with several who had testified. “The words they used with us were, ‘We want to fight for our children,’ ” she said. Plaintiffs Mejia, Ysaura Mezón, Maria Pirir and Juan Cruz Estevez told Wood their experiences at 360 High School were far better than those at other schools in the district. “They had really good communication from the school, which was a contrast to their prior experiences,” said Wood.

They were also concerned about their children’s safety at other schools, citing fears that they wouldn’t be told if something went wrong or that communication wouldn’t be conducted in a language they understood. And they worried that students hadn’t been given adequate transition planning for shifting over to the new school. Already, at least 17 of the 286 students enrolled at 360 have decided not to attend Juanita Sanchez and are choosing other options.

Wood believed the families had a strong case to stop the closure under the Equal Educational Opportunities Act and filed a complaint against Providence Public School District, Providence School Board, the state Department of Education and Commissioner of Education Angélica Infante-Green on April 22. 

Juanita Sanchez, the lawsuit says, has been classified as chronically low-performing for 13 years, about a decade longer than 360. And while only 6% of 360’s English learners met growth targets on standardized assessments, Wood said families fear they will not receive a stronger education elsewhere. The district has struggled for years to comply with the act and provide appropriate services for students with limited or no English. 

Wood filed a motion for preliminary injunction on April 29, asking the court to halt the closure of 360 until a decision is reached in the case. District spokesman Jay Wegimont declined to comment on the lawsuit other than to say the district and state “acted in the best interests of students and are committed to expanding access to high-quality learning opportunities for all students, including multilingual learners.” 

On June 6, Chief Judge John McConnell of the United States District Court of Rhode Island ​​denied a motion by the defendants for summary judgment and ordered that the parties enter an expedited discovery process. After that, he will rule on the preliminary injunction. While Wood and the plaintiffs are pushing for a decision as soon as possible, it may not come before the last day of school on June 24. 

But the end of the school year would not mean the end of the lawsuit. If a preliminary injunction is granted after June 24, the school closure will still be halted until the court decides the case. Displaced 360 teachers and administrators, including some who have taken jobs at other district schools, would need to be reinstated, and student placements would need to be adjusted. Wood said this sort of last-minute shuffling is sometimes hard for the community, but it has been done before in the case of lawsuits or settlements in various urban districts.

In school closure cases where a preliminary injunction was not granted, lawsuits have proceeded even after specific schools shut their doors for good. Though the eventual rulings did not save particular schools, they could still have an impact on the procedure followed in future closure decisions. 

Even if the preliminary injunction is granted, the district could close 360 later. Depending on the eventual outcome of the case, what that would look like for students and families could change. 
Meanwhile, at 360, Foley said the students, teachers and families are pushing forward — focused on celebrating their “wonderful community” and “closing with dignity and celebration” — before their potential last-ever day of school. But Wood believes that if her case prevails, English learners could “get a pathway forward where their needs and perspectives are taken into consideration.”

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