The U.S. Department of Education will investigate whether the Tacoma school district is discriminating against students at Lincoln High School on the basis of race or related factors.
The announcement came in a Feb. 10 letter from the Seattle regional office of the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights. It was sent to a group of Lincoln educators who complained publicly at the start of the school year about practices at Lincoln.
Guidance counselors Truby Pete and Kathy McGatlin, along with history teacher Sheila Gavigan, said Lincoln — where about three-quarters of the more than 1,400 students are students of color — is pushing out struggling students so it can pump up its graduation rate.
The educators say referring students to the downtown Re-Engagement Center, created by the district to help struggling students catch up, deprives them of a chance to complete their schooling at Lincoln.
School district attorney Shannon McMinimee said she’s already responded to the federal investigators’ request for information. She said she’s confident the documentation will show that Lincoln is not discriminating.
“We continue to believe that this an effort by two staff members who are not meeting performance expectations to obfuscate and complicate issues around (job) evaluation,” McMinimee said.
Pete and McGatlin have said that because of their advocacy for students they recently received negative performance evaluations for the first time in their careers.
The Lincoln educators filed complaints with the district, the state and the federal civil rights office, alleging wrongdoing by some Lincoln administrators.
The district subsequently sued the three, claiming they released confidential student records in an effort to make their complaints public. The district also sought return of the records.
Joan Mell, attorney for the women, said the documents shared by her clients had all student identifying information blacked out. She contends no federal student privacy laws were violated.
The lawsuit is pending in Pierce County Superior Court.
McMinimee said the downtown Re-Engagement Center, (renamed last week as Willie Stewart Academy – A Re-Engagement Center) is just one option for struggling students.
“Students are referred to the Re-Engagement Center by all of our high schools,” McMinimee said. “Consistent with state law, it is always the choice of students and families as to whether that’s an option they want to pursue.”
She said the center “has provided a significant number of students the ability to graduate when they were otherwise too far behind to do so at a comprehensive high school.”
She added that students may be attracted to the center because it offers an alternative learning environment that includes daytime and evening classes, as well as an opportunity for students to work at their own pace.
The federal civil rights office also said it would look into other parts of the complaint filed by the Lincoln educators. They include allegations that Lincoln:
• Lacks sufficient entry-level courses compared with other high schools in the district
• Has an additional graduation requirement of a senior project that is not required at other district high schools
• Provides fewer and less qualified counselors compared with other Tacoma high schools.
In response to those allegations, the district says:
• It has submitted course listings for each of its high schools to the federal investigators. McMinimee said Lincoln has boosted Advanced Placement class offerings in response to a district policy on academic acceleration.
• The senior culminating project was a state graduation requirement for all students until this school year, when it became optional. Three Tacoma high schools — Lincoln, the School of the Arts and the Science and Math Institute — have chosen to retain the requirement.
• Documents show that each of Tacoma’s comprehensive high schools has five counselors, with the exception of the smaller Foss High School, which has four. McMinimee said several job categories fall under the counseling umbrella, including traditional guidance counselors, on-time graduation specialists and career counselors. She said all hold state certification.
In addition to outlining which areas it would investigate, the federal letter rejected several other arguments in the Lincoln educators’ complaint.
One allegation was that students who were not part of the school’s high-rigor program known as Lincoln Center were not provided equal resources. The letter said the complaint did not provide enough information to indicate discrimination.
The letter also said investigators would not probe into the allegation that the district retaliated against the Lincoln educators by filing the lawsuit, again because of a lack of information backing the claim.