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Talking ELL's in BPS

Over two years ago, the Gaston Institute at UMass Boston issued a scathing report on the status of English Language Learners in the Boston Public Schools.

Two years ago, the Gaston Institute issued a scathing report on the status of English Language Learners (ELL’s) in BPS. Soon thereafter, Dr. Eileen de los Reyes was appointed Assistant Superintendent for the ELL Department. A year later, BPS reached an agreement with the Department of Justice, which had been investigating the district on behalf of ELL students. Recently, Pat Brandes sat down with Claudio Martinez – a Class of 2005 Barr Fellow, Executive Director of Hyde Square Task Force, Boston School Committee member, and Co-Chair of the English Language Learners Task Force. They talked about what it’s taken to move this work forward, what’s different now for kids and their families and for teachers and their schools, and what to expect on the road ahead.

Pat Brandes (PB): In your opinion, where are we today with respect to ELL’s in BPS?

Claudio Martinez (CM): The last two years we have been dealing with ten or more years of neglect and confusion on this front. Initially, we were trying to find 5,000 ELL students who went “missing” in our system. We tested 7,000 of them to figure out what level they were at. Today, we have 16,000 ELL’s who are Limited English Proficient (LEP's) and 5,000 who are Former ELL’s (FLEP's), which is approximately 40% of our student population. At the same time, we integrated the ELL Department into BPS senior management, a new status. We have also worked to coordinate the ELL team with the Special Needs Department, as well as Family and Student Engagement. There has been consistent, forward momentum and progress on many fronts. And I think there is now a shared sense that we can never slip back to the way things used to be.

PB: What is behind the momentum?

CM: It comes from all levels. Internally, the Superintendent has given a lot of attention to these issues, so has the School Committee, which has embraced the direction that Dr. Eileen de los Reyes and Dr. Carol Johnson are taking. Thousands of teachers have voluntarily attended what we call “category trainings” in ELL. Even though these are only the bare minimum teachers need to support ELL students, they signify a larger cultural shift that is underway in BPS. Unfortunately, I don’t think that the community has the same feeling of momentum yet. There is still a lot of confusion among families about what the district offers and how to help their kids succeed.

PB: Why is that?

CM: A big part is school assignment. Just like for any child, the education of ELL students depends largely on which schools they attend. We don’t have the same levels of resources and ELL services in every school. And it is an enormous piece of work to ensure ELL students needing services don’t end up in regular education classrooms with limited or no services ever again.

PB: Which often happened before?

CM: Yes, it did.

PB: So, how does it work now?

CM: Step one – a family goes to register for school at a Family Resource Center. When a coordinator there discovers that English is not the family’s primary language, then – step two – the child and family are sent to the Newcomers’ Assessment Center. There, the child is fully tested, which is a lengthy process – and the source of many complaints. Then, step three – and this is one clear improvement – a member of the ELL staff is at the Newcomers’ Assessment Center to advise the family about school choices. Yet, when – step four – the family returns to the Family Resource Center, they are sometimes told, “Well, there are no more seats at that school.”

PB: So, there is no real-time connection?

CM: Exactly. That is why we are working to streamline school assignment with school organization. In my view, one way to solve this would be to empower the ELL Department with assignment authority, so they could reserve seats and assign students to schools they think will be the best fit, all of this with parent approval and buy in.

PB: Is that idea part of the larger conversation now underway about school assignment?

CM: It is one of the recommendations of the ELL Task Force. I keep bringing it up. But “busing” is one of the most political issues in all of BPS – maybe even the whole city of Boston.

PB: For teachers that have lived through these reforms, what feels different?

CM: Well, at a minimum, as a teacher I have participated in three trainings that have given me some strategies for helping ELL kids. Hopefully, I now have a principal who has embraced the concept that half or more of our kids are multicultural, and who is providing me the right tools and support to do my work. I also have an ELL department that is a resource for ideas and help. That is the ideal. In reality, unfortunately, I know there are administrators, teachers, principals, parents and students who probably feel resentful about these new developments both pragmatically and ideologically. Unfortunately, the ENGLISH ONLY fears about multilingualism (which created the mess we are trying to fix today via Question 2) are deep, ugly, and, unfortunately still alive and well in this City, State, and Country.

PB: So, part of the resentment is because you’ve made my job harder?

CM: Yes – and you can quote me on that. But hopefully I have also made your job more gratifying because you are more effective with a population of students that desperately needs you. These kids represent the growing population of Boston and the U.S. already, and they will continue to for years to come.

PB: What gives you the most hope?

CM: The Superintendent has been a force to move this conversation forward. Her discourse is inspiring. It has created a culture where, it would now be embarrassing to suggest we ignore these kids or to say, as some did in the very recent past, that there’s no problem. What also makes me hopeful is that the ELL Department and ELL Task Force are not only thinking about ELL students. We are proposing a vision of a multicultural system – one where every kid has opportunities to learn a second language. More and more people are embracing the idea of giving our kids a second language and cultural proficiencies to better compete in globalized societies.

PB: They certainly are embracing that idea in the suburbs. Kids are racing to learn Chinese.

CM: In BPS, our largest ELL population is Spanish speakers, and they get a lot of our attention and focus. But there are so many other major and growing language groups in Boston. Last year, I was invited to speak at graduation for English High School. Before I spoke, the principal did his whole presentation with a translator in Somali after doing the same in Spanish. I was so shocked to hear that. I expected maybe Spanish. When I stepped to the microphone, the first thing I did was to apologize to the Somali community. I was embarrassed for not even knowing how to greet them in their own language. It was a lesson for me into the kind of work that still needs to be done. It was also inspiring to be reminded we have principals, teachers, and many others thinking like this and leading by example.

PB: Is there anything I missed?

CM: As we talk about success, it is fascinating when you look at the valedictorian class each year and you see all these very recent immigrant kids succeeding. The English High School valedictorian was one – a girl from Guinea, who came to this country by herself. She had not had much formal education. Yet, with the right support – wherever that support comes from – the community, the family, BPS, a mentor – it makes a huge difference. Just an amazing story. And it calls the question of why so many native English students are struggling to succeed. This is, I think, the Zapatista question we encountered on our trip to Chiapas with the Barr Fellows – the question of how the community never moves faster than its slowest members. Because our challenge is a group of kids, who are the majority of our kids in BPS, who need new approaches, a lot of patience, and a lot of time. Even the best of us don’t always feel we have the kind of time, patience, and resources it takes to deliver an effective, state-of-the-art education.

PB: I don’t have the answers. But it is good to end on an important question.

CM: I am glad that you and Barr find this question to be an important one. Thank you.

PB: Thank you.

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Pat Brandes

Guest Author Former Executive Director

Claudio Martinez

Barr Fellow Executive Director, La Vida Scholars