An outside review has found the Seattle School District's programs for bilingual students to be among the weakest of urban programs around the country.

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An outside review of Seattle Public Schools’ program for immigrant students says it is one of the weakest the evaluators have ever seen, and needs nothing short of a complete overhaul.

The program, the evaluators said, “is ad hoc, incoherent and directionless.” They said it was “far off the mark in its ability to educate the community’s newcomers very well.”

“In some ways,” they added, “the school district does not have a program at all.”

The review, released Wednesday, was the latest in a series of audits the district has initiated over the past year or so.

It also was the toughest.

But Superintendent Maria Goodloe-Johnson welcomed the criticism, calling the report’s conclusions the “hard, brutal facts” that the district needs to move forward.

“I sensed we had a lot of work to do,” she said.

The Council of the Great City Schools, a coalition of 66 of the nation’s largest urban school systems, conducted the review with a team that included educators from several large districts that are making progress with English-language learners. The evaluators donated their time, and a grant from the Broad Foundation covered the rest of the costs. The team traveled to Seattle twice, interviewing more than 60 people and visiting about 100 classrooms.

They concluded that Seattle essentially throws its English-language learners — nearly one-quarter of its students — into regular classrooms before they are ready, and without much support.

The report criticized the district for failing to track the progress of the newcomers, which means no one knows how they’re doing as a group, or how effective the bilingual programs are.

The report also said Seattle’s bilingual programs have “skeletal staffing levels” spread among a large number of schools, and that bilingual teachers and teaching assistants receive little training.

It found that 43 percent of students eligible for bilingual education services do not receive them, although it’s unclear how many families choose not to enroll.

It also noted that the academic achievement of students in English-language programs is low and has gone down in some subjects and grades in the past few years, although the reviewers also said those trends must be viewed with caution because of changes in the number of English-language learners tested each year.

The 84-page review made a series of recommendations. Some of the specific suggestions included:

• Stop pulling students out of class for 45 minutes a day of English instruction, and help them learn English in regular classes in part by providing some instruction in students’ native language.

• Create a series of 10 or so “dual-language” magnet programs throughout the city, similar to the one at Concord Elementary.

• Strengthen the academics in the district’s Secondary Bilingual Orientation Center — the first school that many older immigrants attend — so that students can learn English and earn the credits they need to graduate from high school. (Students now don’t receive credit for the classes they take at the center.)

• Establish a Bilingual Orientation Center specifically for students in grades 6-8.

• Track the progress of students even after they’ve left the bilingual programs.

At the School Board meeting Wednesday night, Sherry Carr called the report “sobering,” and Michael DeBell said it was “disquieting.” But all the board members expressed appreciation for the council’s efforts.

“Thank you for not sugarcoating this report,” said Harium Martin-Morris.

Maria Ramirez, a leader in the group that supports the district’s Secondary Bilingual Orientation Center and a vice president of the districtwide parent-teacher organization, praised the report, too, but said she wants to see how it’s carried out.

“It feels like we’re moving from covered wagons to the electric car,” she said.

The council doesn’t expect the recommendations to be carried out overnight — or even that they will be followed exactly. Goodloe-Johnson said she agreed with all the report’s conclusions and recommendations, but Michael Casserly, the council’s executive director, said they are meant to be guidelines.

And despite the report’s criticisms, Casserly said district leaders deserve praise for having the courage to ask for the review. He stressed that he has confidence in the ability and commitment of the district to make improvements.

“Nobody is running away from the problem,” he said.

The district is forming a team that will decide how to carry the review forward. It will be led by Veronica Gallardo, the former principal of Wedgwood Elementary who is now interim manager of the bilingual department.

Gallardo said she was excited about “the possibilities of implementing the change that we so desperately need.”

Linda Shaw: 206-464-2359 or lshaw@seattletimes.com