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On Nov. 4, California education officials agreed to settle a class-action lawsuit on behalf of low-income students at six high schools in and around Los Angeles and Oakland who were assigned to sham classes that lacked appropriate educational content. The students who took these classes, which where called “College Class,” “Inside Work Experience,” “Home,” “Adult Class” and “Service,” were asked to perform menial tasks for the school staff or left on their own to socialize or surf the web. The plaintiffs’ lawyers, the Los Angeles-based pro-bono law firm Public Counsel and the ACLU Foundation of Southern California, argued that the sham classes, along with scheduling problems that left enrolled students without classroom assignments, deprived students of the learning time to which they are legally entitled.

As part of the settlement, state officials must help those six high schools improve their scheduling and get rid of fake classes. In addition, the state legislature recently passed a law, AB 1012, which mandates all high school classes in the entire state must have educational content. Kathryn Eidmann, a staff attorney for Public Counsel, spoke to The Hechinger Report about the kids who sued the state to force their schools to teach them something.

Question: The plaintiffs in this case, low-income high school students, many of whom were English-language learners, were being assigned to fake classes instead of being given meaningful instruction. But 17-year-olds often don’t know what their rights are as far as education and how to press for something better. How did this problem come to your attention?

Answer: We’ve been involved in civil rights for some time, of course, and we know that unequal access to learning time is something that is creating and perpetuating the achievement gap. In speaking to teachers, students and families about factors that are leading to lost learning time at low-income schools, the warehousing of students in countless of these courses came up. We filed the suit in May 2014 with four high schools in Oakland, Los Angeles and Compton and then another two school, Jefferson and Susan Miller Dorsey high school were added in the fall when there were massive problems with student scheduling there.

How did you gather your research?

“The students were assigned to classes without any instruction of any kind. Instead of lessons, they were cleaning the classroom, emptying the trash, sitting on the back of the classroom on Tumblr or surfing the web.”

We spoke to hundreds of students and families as well as teachers and community-based organizations who all wanted to press for accountability from the state. There are student chapters of a community organization in South LA called Community Coalition at many of the area high schools that serve low-income students. The student in these chapters  had been working on this issue, they learned about their rights, they were trained on how to gather information and did a lot of work around this. At Susan Miller Dorsey High School and a number of South L.A. high schools, student activists conducted a survey — on paper— with other students and found hundreds who had significant problems with their schedules, were missing course and had been assigned to a contentless course.

Related: How one KIPP principal is trying to get his students to college – and keep them there

Three weeks into the start of the last school year (in 2014), students at Jefferson High School walked out to protest the fact that many were assigned to take classes they had already passed or were spending time in the auditorium instead of in classrooms learning. The students at Jefferson were protesting a new course assignment system that was faulty but this problem was not new. Students had been assigned to contentless courses in the year before and the year before that. In fact, it had been going on for decades.

Q: Can you describe the experiences of plaintiffs in this case?

A: The students were assigned to classes without any instruction of any kind. Instead of lessons, they were cleaning the classroom, emptying the trash, sitting on the back of the classroom on Tumblr or surfing the web. Another type of sham class was “ home class” — they were just sent home and told they could no longer stay on the school campus. The students who were assigned to these classes were often far below grade level in math and literacy.

Q: Did these sham classes hurt a student’s chance to succeed in college? 

A: One student who participated in the lawsuit, Johnae Twinn, was assigned to three contentless courses. She wanted to study science but there were no science courses. Instead, she got two classes where she was just sent home and a third where where she sat in a library assigned to a counselor who once in while asked her to shred paper. This is a student who was on track to graduate but what we see is when those student do graduate, they are far behind their peers who attend more affluent schools. Many of the students who were assigned these sham classes, if they do make it to college, really struggle to keep up. At one of the schools named in the suit, Castlemont High School in Oakland, 95 percent of the students from there who do go to college end up having to take remedial courses.

Q: Are there other costs to students?

A: Well, Jessy Cruz, a named plaintiff in the suit, was a foster kid who was not on track to graduate. He was assigned to three contentless courses. He was not able to graduate. He has not gotten his GRE. He has not gotten a job. We are very pleased this kind of warehousing will not go on in California any more. We want to make sure no student anywhere in the future gets treated this way.

Related: To reform a struggling high school, try this Rhode Islander’s approach

Did you get resistance from principals on this?  Or from the state? 

A: We’ve worked with many administrators and principals who were horrified to have to put these kids in these kinds of classes but there were not the resources there to give them a challenging curriculum. After we filed the suit, all the students at one of the high schools had to be placed in courses with content — and the school had to hire additional teachers and run additional classes. And the school had to add learning time to make up for the months that were lost. In the settlement, the state, which had the initial response that “this is not our job. We have no idea what is going on in the schools” and had chosen not to monitor which students were being assigned to what classes, now has the responsibility to track whether students are assigned through a state data base. Under the new law that came along with this settlement, contentless classes are illegal. But it is outrageous that a lawsuit had to be brought to bring them to an end. They are indefensible.

Q: If you know about students who attend high schools where they are unable to get the classes they want, have schedule gaps or even problems getting schedule at all what can you do? 

A: We’d like this settlement to be the start of a national campaign to tackle this problem around the nation. The settlement and the new law reaffirms that there is nothing more important than being in a classroom and learning. Learning time itself is one of the building blocks of education and we’d like to make sure that time in schools is spent educating children, not just checking off boxes. When schools cut costs and reduce class, we have to make sure it is not destructive to the futures of low-income students and English language learners.

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education.

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