Boston students struggle with English-only rule

Many nonnatives quit the system

By James Vaznis
Globe Staff / April 7, 2009
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Students not fluent in English have floundered in Boston schools since voters approved a law change six years ago requiring school districts to teach them all subjects in English rather than their native tongue, according to a report being released tomorrow.

In one of the most striking findings, the study found that the high school dropout rate nearly doubled for students still learning to speak and write in English, according to the report by the Mauricio Gastón Institute for Latino Community Development and Public Policy at the University of Massachusetts at Boston and the Center for Collaborative Education.

The report - considered the most comprehensive look at the law's impact on any school district in the state - paints a picture of a system ill-prepared to serve nonnative English speakers, who make up about 38 percent of the district's 56,000students.

In many cases, the district is failing to evaluate properly and subsequently identify hundreds of students for special language instruction, while also failing to provide parents with enough information to make sound decisions about program choices, according to the report, which analyzed data between 2003 and 2006.

Overall, the statistics show that the law - hailed as a quicker way to teach students English - has not helped them gain ground on their English-speaking peers, and in many cases may have left them even further behind.

In an interview yesterday, Carol R. Johnson, superintendent of Boston schools, acknowledged shortcomings in the district's programs but emphasized that she is committed to improving the performance of English language learners. She said the district intends to revamp the way it tests students for those services, provide more comprehensive information to parents about services, and is expanding programs for those students.

"I think everybody recognizes we need to move with a sense of urgency," said Johnson, who received a briefing from the report's authors yesterday afternoon and was reviewing the findings. "Children need help and we need to help them now."

The report, which included a review of standardized test scores, attendance data, and suspension rates, steered clear of the contentious issue of whether the change in law was appropriate, and instead highlighted solutions that Boston should adopt to conform with the law.

The findings could also provide insight into what is happening in other school districts statewide. Boston, the state's largest school district, represents 29 percent of students who require English language learning support in the state. The report looks specifically at languages most often spoken by them: Spanish, Chinese dialects, Vietnamese, Haitian Creole, and Cape Verdean Creole.

"It's always a crime when the potential of any kid is wasted away because a school system didn't provide the services they should be," said Jane E. Lopez, a staff attorney with Multicultural Education, Training, and Advocacy Inc., a national probilingual education group with offices in Massachusetts. "It's a huge problem and it should be an embarrassment to Boston public schools."

Ron Unz, chairman of English for the Children, a California advocacy group that pushed for the change in Massachusetts law, said yesterday that he had not seen a copy of the report but noted that probilingual groups in California have released similar reports about that state. He said he was skeptical of the findings.

"It could be a case that Boston is not doing a good job of implementing the program," Unz said.

Voters approved the law change in fall 2002 against the backdrop of a contentious national debate over immigration; school districts had nine months to implement the dramatic change. The ballot question ended the state's three-decade-old transitional bilingual education program, which promoted the practice of teaching English language learners subjects in their native languages while they learned to speak English fluently.

Under the new law, districts must teach all subjects in English even as students learn the language. In most cases, students are taught as a group in a separate classroom, where a teacher uses more simplified English and pictures and graphics in teaching subjects such as science and geometry. The goal is to merge students into regular education classes within a year or two.

Students can still be taught academic subjects in their native languages under the new law, typically when a critical mass of students who speak that language exist and parents want the program. But many education advocates say school districts are unaware of that provision or do not generally let parents know of this right.

In one finding, the report found that a number of parents declined to enroll their children into English language learning programs, even though Boston officials had identified their children as needing extra help. According to the report, the high school dropout rate for students whose parents declined such services tripled over the period studied.

One parent advocate said yesterday that many parents, particularly those who do not speak English, do not understand the consequences of declining services because school staff has failed to explain program offerings and the law properly.

"There is a lot of misinformation and miscommunication," said Myriam Ortiz, acting director of the Boston Parent Organizing Network, an advocacy group. "Parents go to the [district's] family resource centers and feel lost. They don't always know what the options are or what's the best options for their children."

The report follows a state review of the district's program last year that found thousands of students identified as English language learners did not receive support for the past four years, and ordered the district to develop a remedy. Boston schools submitted their plan to the state this winter. Boston has been without a permanent director for English language learning programs for nearly a year.

The report, which will be the subject of a forum tomorrow, also urged the state to undertake a study examining progress in all the school districts across the state.

"Once it's the law of the land, it has to be done well," said Miren Uriarte, a senior research associate at the Gastón Institute and a coauthor of the report. "It's a challenge for [Boston] and the state as a whole [to make the changes], but they have to realize these kids are here to stay and it behooves us to educate them well."