It's difficult for a student to learn in a language he or she doesn't understand. So it must have been hard for young Oneida Torres of Methuen to learn much of anything when, over three years, she was plucked from Tenney Grammar School classes taught in English and placed for a time in a classroom with Spanish speakers.

Oneida speaks only English.

It took Oneida's mother, Aidria Torres, three years of fighting to get the Methuen school system to stop shunting her daughter off to classes conducted in a language she doesn't speak. The school system, lamely, blames rigid state rules for the mistake. But it is difficult to imagine that state rules require Methuen to force a child who speaks only English into an English as a Second Language class. It is even more difficult to understand why, after being informed of their error, school officials repeated the mistake for two more years.

"She shouldn't be separated from her class without me knowing," Torres told reporter Stephanie Chelf. "That's how I felt in the beginning, that they were basing this on her Spanish last name. If her last name was Smith, this wouldn't be an issue."

The problem for the Torres family began when they enrolled Oneida in school. Her parents checked a box on an enrollment form that said they also speak Spanish. That triggered a process that, once started, was nearly impossible to stop.

Oneida was placed in an ESL class at the start of first grade. Her mother didn't find out until several months later when she received a letter from school officials asking her to attend a meeting of English learners.

When Torres complained, Oneida was moved back into an English-speaking class. But the school made the same mistake when Oneida started second grade and again in third grade.

Supervisor of Language Acquisition Jane Sigillo said she acknowledges that "the process did not go smoothly" in Oneida's case and she regrets that. But the school system was only doing "what we're mandated to do."

Oneida did not pass a language assessment test given to her in first grade, so she was flagged for ESL classes, Sigillo said. And every year, the computer flagged her for the classes again.

Parents whose children are targeted for ESL classes will now be called by teachers, rather than simply notified by letter. Torres welcomes the change.

It's a pity no one seems to have spoken to the girl. Surely a five-minute conversation would have indicated her only language was English. Did no teacher in the ESL classes notice that Oneida's first and only language was English? Why was her mother's insistence that Oneida speaks only English not enough to override the computer's decision?

The Methuen school system should have been able to resolve its problem with Oneida Torres quickly. Instead, it was a three-year ordeal for the girl and her parents.

It would not have been so if school officials and teachers had been responsive to the evidence before their eyes rather than blindly following what computer printouts and state procedures told them to do.

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