English 101: Sue the School

13 immigrant students file suit alleging that Abraham Lincoln High in Minneapolis failed to provide them with an adequate education. Results of a state investigation confirm problems at school.

Ibrahim Mumid was near tears Tuesday afternoon, describing how, despite his pleas for help, his hearing disability had been ignored during his four years at Lincoln High School. "I came to U.S. in 1999. In five years, no speak English, no write my name," Mumid, an Ethiopian immigrant, says in voice tinged with shame and bitterness, his lower lip quivering.

Today, after being "aged out"--told his was too old to stay in school despite not having completed sufficient work to earn his diploma--the 24-year old Mumid has a hearing aid and continues working to acquire the basic knowledge required for him to function effectively in this country. "I am going to library. They teach me, library," he says.

Mumid is one of 13 immigrant students who filed a civil complaint against Lincoln, alleging that his human rights were violated because he did not receive an adequate education as required by state and federal laws. Also named in the lawsuit were the Institute for New Americans, the nonprofit entity that operates the private school, and the Minneapolis Public Schools, which has contracted Lincoln to educate approximately 300 newly arrived immigrants of high school age in the district each year.

In June, the Minnesota Department of Education delivered the results of its investigation of Lincoln High to MPS Superintendent Thandiwe Peebles. The "Findings of Fact" noted in the MDE report buttress many of the claims made in the students' lawsuit.

Specifically, the MDE investigation discovered that just 17 percent of the students at Lincoln passed the Minnesota Basic Standards Test over the past three years, compared to a 40 percent pass rate for ELL (english language learner) students throughout the district. Over the past three years, Lincoln has identified just one student as requiring special education services, and has less than one percent of its population utilizing those services. According to the MDE report, the state average is 12.5 percent. "Based on the numbers alone, it is apparent that SLHS does not have a system in place designed to identify students with disabilities," says the report.

"The lawsuit challenges the practice of the Minneapolis School District of using Abraham Lincoln High School as a warehouse for immigrant high school aged students," says David Shulman, one of the lawyers representing the immigrants, at a press conference at MPS headquarters Tuesday afternoon. "Students sat in mainstream classrooms for years, not understanding what was being said, or what was being taught....With this lawsuit, the students are seeking to get an education and to bring to an end the grossly negligent, unlawful management of this school."

Later on Tuesday, MPS legal counsel Allen Giles and Lincoln High Executive Director Joel Gibson held their own press conference at Lincoln to rebut the charges. This turned into a small disaster when it was quickly revealed that not only hadn't either Giles nor Gibson read the details of the lawsuit (understandable, since it had been filed just hours earlier), but both men also said they hadn't read the state's three-month old investigative report.

After the press conference, MPS representative Mary Berry clarified that the state's investigative report was a preliminary report, not a final report, and in that distinction the confusion was sown. The implication was that Giles and/or Gibson had read the "preliminary" report, or at least were aware of it. Maybe so, but the "preliminary" report was a single-spaced, 13-page document detailing nine specific areas requiring corrective action at the school, and the school's executive director was obviously not conversant with the details of any of it. On the contrary, Gibson began disputing the points of another, unrelated report, involving a lack of textbooks and teacher licensure, neither of which was mentioned by the state.

Berry, however, is aware of the state's report. "We immediately began addressing the points and gathering the data they have asked us for. I am sure they will issue their final report in the near future," she says.

Asked for the state's reaction, Amy L. Roberts, director of the MDE's division of compliance and assistance, and the author of the "preliminary" report, directed City Pages to the MDE communications office, which in turn faxed over a four-page progress report on four meetings between representatives from the state and the school district, the last on July 27. At this point in time, at least, very little has been done to resolve the state's concerns. In at least one case, the state had still not received the baseline data it had requested in June on present levels of student performance at the school. Plans to implement a "pre-referral system" to strengthen special education screening was still in its nascent stages. And it was already agreed that two of the corrective actions called for in the state's preliminary report would be postponed for months. Meanwhile, the district has not offered a significant rebuttal to the disturbing numbers and patterns of behavior contained in the state's report. A final consensus on how to resolve the concerns raised by the state's investigation has not been achieved. Lincoln High School continues to operate. And Ibrahim Mumid learns to read and write at the library.

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