Boston Students Struggle With English-Only Rule

James Vaznis, Boston Globe, April 7, 2009

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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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[Editor’s Note: The Mauricio Gaston Institute’s report “English Learners in Boston Public Schools in the Aftermath of Policy Change: Enrollment and Educational Outcomes, AY2003-AY2006” can be read or downloaded as a PDF file here.]

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