Parents and students from the Hayward, Los Angeles and West Contra Costa school districts filed a federal lawsuit Tuesday against the U.S. Department of Education alleging that the department broke with laws meant to ensure a quality teacher in each classroom.

When Congress passed the No Child Left Behind Act in 2001, lawmakers specified that teachers needed to be credentialed and teach in a subject where they received proper training in order to be considered "highly qualified." Districts must notify parents each fall iftheir child's teacher fails to meet those requirements.

However the department allows states to count teacher interns as credentialed even though they are still in the process of earning certification.

Maribel Heredia, a parent of two Hayward students who is suing the department, said during a press conference that her son's first-grade teacher is an intern who leaves twice a week to finish up college classes — leaving her son Jose Aldana with a substitute twice a week.

"I feel that this is wrong to call this teacher highly qualified," Heredia said. "I feel like I'm being lied to."

Troy Flint, a spokesman for the Oakland school district, said it is short-sighted to assume interns are unqualified.

"Often, they have better qualifications in terms of their familiarity with the subject matter," he said, noting that many have bachelor's degrees in the subjects they are assigned to teach.

Flint also noted that it is already difficult to recruit people with math and science backgrounds into teaching. If people had to take two years off to complete a credentialing program, they'd be even less likely to change careers, he argued.

"It's how you pull people in from other walks of life," he said.

An official with the U.S. Department of Education declined to respond to the lawsuit.

"Consistent with the department's practice, we are not able to comment on a complaint that has not been served but we will of course review it closely when we do receive it," said Samara Yudof, U.S. Department of Education spokeswoman.

Heredia, three Richmond High School students and two social justice organizations were among those who filed the lawsuit at the U.S. District Court in San Francisco. The complaint argues that the department overstepped its authority when it created the regulation allowing teachers-in-training to count as highly qualified.

Last school year, more than 10,700 interns worked in California schools as teachers with provisional credentials, according to the state Department of Education.

Lawyers at the San Francisco civil rights firm Public Advocates who helped file the lawsuit say that the loophole allows districts and the state to mask the shortage of trained teachers, particularly at campuses with many poor students of color.

"If successful, this suit will prohibit states and districts from continuing the all too frequent practice of concentrating interns at low-income and high-minority schools," said John Affeldt, managing attorney of Public Advocates.

At Richmond High, one in 10 teachers worked as interns last school year, according to state data.

Three incoming juniors — Jazmine Johnson, Adriana Ramirez and one unnamed student — are suing.

As a freshman, Johnson took English, Spanish and geography from interns, according to the complaint. Ramirez had interns for English and Spanish as a sophomore.

"It's not fair to the students," said Jessica Price, a former teaching intern at Richmond High who recently earned her credential and will begin her second year there this fall. "Half their teachers are just getting their bearing down. That's going to affect their education."

Interns still need guidance and time to learn the art of teaching, which did not happen in her case, she said. Days after graduating from UC Santa Barbara, she found herself teaching summer school in Watts.

"With just five days of training, we were already put in the classroom," Price said. 

Last fall, Price arrived at Richmond High as an intern, one of nine on staff, she said. She has since earned her credential, but still feels green.

"Last year when I walked through the door, no way was I highly qualified," Price said.

Some schools rely heavily on interns. In Pittsburg, nearly a quarter of the teachers at Central Middle School were interns last year. At Edna Brewer Middle School in Oakland, more than a third of the staff were interns from universities or colleges. In Oakland, interns make up 10 percent of teachers.

Recent University of Oregon graduate Chelsea Byers started her first year at the Melrose Leadership Academy in Oakland last year after six weeks of training with Teach for America program.

"Even with one year of experience today, I would still not call myself highly qualified," Byers said.

However interns do not necessarily lower the quality of education at every school.

"You can't equate having a lot of veteran teachers with the achievement of students," said Gary McHenry, superintendent of the Mt. Diablo school district. "Sometimes you have a younger staff and they get amazing results."

At Eagle Peak Montessori elementary school in Walnut Creek, six out of 10 teachers held certificates in 2006-07. Two worked as interns and another two taught on emergency credentials. The average years of experience is 2.4 years.

However, the charter school earned some of the best achievement scores of all elementary schools in the Mt. Diablo school district. Similarly, the Oakland Charter Academy posted some of the highest test scores among middle schools in the Oakland school district last school year even though five out of six teachers were interns, according to state data.

Academy Director Jorge Lopez said he finds it easier to work with younger, less experienced teachers because they are more open to the concept of charter schools.

"I always go after teachers without credentials because they're not tainted," Lopez said.

But new teachers still need guidance, said Jane West, a vice president at the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education. Intern programs fill a vital role in preparing the next wave of teachers.

However those programs have changed from a training ground into a standard way of filling the holes left by retirees and those leaving the industry.

"There's a real price to be paid for that," West said.

Staff writers Eric Louie, Katy Murphy, Kristofer Noceda and Kimberly S. Wetzel contributed to this story. Shirley Dang covers education. Reach her at 925-977-8418 or sdang@bayareanewsgroup.com.