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Parents of English-learning students showed up to the San Diego Unified school board meeting Tuesday night – angry.

They felt manipulated, stepped on and ignored, they told Superintendent Cindy Marten and the school board, because of Marten’s decision late last year to cut back the teachers who supported English learners.

Despite the fact they have the highest dropout rate among any student group in the district, students who are learning English have even fewer resources now than they had in past years.

The decision to cut back on English learner support teachers was made last summer, but many parents weren’t aware of the changes until their kids returned to school.

The president of an English learner advisory committee at San Diego High School, said Tuesday that he and other parents sent Marten and the school board a letter last summer asking for details on their plan to support English learners.

But he said their questions weren’t answered with any clarity.

“Once again, your responses were pure rhetoric. Ladies and gentlemen, this is called demagogy,” he said. “You are not following through with a commitment, which is to fight for and watch out for the interests of education.”

Another parent, who has three English-learning children in the district, told the school board that two of her kids made enough academic progress to be considered fluent.

She attributed that success to support teachers – the fact that a specific person was responsible for looking out for them made all the difference, she said. Now she’s worried the same support won’t be given to her youngest child.

There’s a case to be made – and Marten has made it – that support teachers weren’t exactly working miracles, considering the low graduation rates among English learners.

But parents’ main concern can be distilled like this: You can’t take away support for our kids, not replace it, and expect us not to be angry about it.

During the meeting, school board members said they recently got a memo from Marten that will answer some of the parents’ questions. Board president Kevin Beiser urged her to release that to the public as soon as it’s ready.

But considering the hazy plan that’s been communicated to the public so far, which includes looking closely at data and forming a task force – it’s unlikely parents will be satisfied until they hear concretes.

This chart posted in the district’s board meeting archives may have been a formatting mistake, but it pretty well sums up the clarity of the plan for helping English learners moving forward.

Standing with parents Tuesday night was school board candidate Amy Redding, who has a long history of pushing the district to be transparent about where it spends its money.

Remember: Last year, the so-called Local Control Funding Formula changed the way school districts were funded. To put it simply, a lot of the money that used to come with strings is now coming to the district in one big pot.

In exchange for the extra flexibility, districts had to create a specific plan for how that money would be spent. But even early on, parents were concerned that San Diego Unified wouldn’t keep to its plan, and that money wouldn’t get to the kids who needed it most.

This explains why the decision to cut back on English learner support teachers is a little muddy. When it drafted the plan, the district said $20.6 million this year would go toward helping English learners. But wrapped up in the overall strategy was paying for ELSTs.

So just a few short weeks into the school year, the district is already making changes to the plan it created. And now that the district is cutting ELSTs, after the plan was already made, what’s going to happen to the money?

Schools might be able to spend it in other ways, but will have to wait for approval from the school district before they’re free to use it, Redding said.

But pushing for clear accounting is one thing, replacing the support students once got is another.

Mario Koran

Mario was formerly an investigative reporter for Voice of San Diego. He wrote about schools, children and people on the margins of San Diego.

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