Wednesday, August 26, 2009

US inspects Boston's language instruction; Schools neglected English learners

The US Department of Justice has launched an inquiry into Boston’s failure to provide necessary language instruction to thousands of students who speak limited English, a violation of federal law that has the district scrambling to hire teachers and expand programs for this fall.

The federal scrutiny began after Boston schools revealed earlier this year during a routine state review that 42 percent of its nearly 11,000 English language learners were not receiving the help they are legally entitled to, according to documents provided to the Globe under a public records request.

The same review found that school officials, by their own admission, were encouraging parents to decline the services, because their programs were full, or were not adequately explaining the options to parents, many of whom do not speak English.

Boston is the latest Massachusetts district targeted by federal regulators for denying equal education opportunities to English language learners, one of the state’s fastest-growing student groups and a population that has generally posted some of the lowest MCAS scores and high dropout rates.

It was not clear yesterday whether the Justice Department is pursuing a settlement agreement with Boston or has launched a formal investigation.

The state required the Globe to file a public records request last week to obtain hundreds of pages of documents, including the federal letters, which arrived this week.

The growth in the number of English language learners this decade has challenged districts statewide, including Boston, where the group makes up almost a fifth of the city’s 56,000 students. Many programs were thrown into disarray, advocates say, after voters in 2002 abolished widespread use of bilingual education, which allows students to learn subjects in their native tongue until they master English.

The new law stresses teaching all subjects in English for nonnative speakers, using a student’s native language only sparingly. But in making the switch, many districts have failed to provide appropriate staffing, training, and programs, either because of funding shortages or misunderstanding of the legal requirements, advocates said.

The problem of underserved children could run even deeper in Boston than current statistics reflect, according to the state review. There may actually be more English language learners than the district has identified because many elementary schools improperly evaluate students, conducting tests only in speaking and listening.

Earlier this year, the district opened a newcomers academy for recently settled immigrant students who did not attend schools in their home countries for several years.
Some advocates said the investment was long overdue.