Metro

Boston schools’ language barriers persist

US says city failing to improve English skills for thousands

The Boston school system is failing to adequately teach thousands of students who speak limited English and provide them with rigorous coursework, nearly five years after promising the US government it would overhaul programs to comply with civil rights laws, according to an ongoing federal review obtained by the Globe.

The violations are so widespread — prompting repeated visits by federal investigators over the last few months — that the school system is increasingly concerned that the federal agencies might head to court to force compliance.

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The situation is the most dire in the middle grades and the high schools, where 49 percent of students known as English-language learners are receiving insufficient levels of specialized instruction or none at all, according to the latest review by the US departments of Education and Justice, dated March 2. And 24 percent of elementary school students with language barriers are in a similar predicament.

Overall, about 30 percent of the system’s 57,000 students are classified as English-language learners.

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The findings that the school system is still struggling to provide students with the appropriate instructional programs stunned a local organization that works on behalf of linguistic minorities.

“It’s mind-boggling,” said Roger Rice of Multicultural Education, Training & Advocacy Inc. in Somerville. “We are talking about thousands of kids. I don’t get the sense that people running Boston schools don’t care about these kids.  . . . But being of a good heart doesn’t necessarily bring about the required changes.”

On Monday, the School Department replaced the assistant superintendent overseeing the English-language programs with an in-house attorney who specializes in compliance. Then, on Wednesday night, the School Committee went into a private session to discuss the federal review, citing “litigation strategy” as the reason for the closed meeting.

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Chairman Michael O’Neill said that “having this discussion in public could have a detrimental effect on the School Committee’s position.” O’Neill, responding to questions only by text messages, would not say Friday whether the federal government had threatened to sue.

Interim Superintendent John McDonough said there is always a risk of litigation. But he defended the school system’s efforts, saying it has been working aggressively to overhaul its programs.

He said the districtwide numbers cited by the federal government do not accurately represent the level of services students are receiving, chalking up the problem to data-collection shortcomings by the school system. Individual school reports have more precise data, McDonough said.

“We found ourselves in a position where the reports we were generating were understating significantly the level of services being provided students who are English-language learners,” McDonough said. in an interview. “That’s a better problem to have than finding you have been over-reporting the numbers.”

But it remains unclear whether the federal agencies, which declined to comment on the Boston review Friday, fully agree with that assessment.

English-language learners have among the lowest MCAS scores and graduation rates in the city. The federal government originally found the school system was denying the civil rights of thousands of the students in fall 2010 by failing, for instance, to place them in the proper programs. That forced the school system to enter into a settlement agreement with the federal agencies to avoid court action.

Under the agreement, the federal agencies reserve the right to sue if the school system fails to fully implement the agreement. But the federal agencies have been experiencing great difficulties in determining the extent to which the school system is bringing its programs into compliance, according to the latest review, because Boston has been producing reports riddled with inaccuracies every year.

Although the school system assured the federal agencies in the fall that “it was working doggedly to fix data accuracy issues” and that the December data would be accurate, the agencies found significant discrepancies between the districtwide data and information reported by individual schools, which provided a rosier view.

The agencies said observations by investigators during limited site visits frequently backed up some information in the individual school reports. But the agencies also expressed frustration in the letter that many of the school reports lacked a required signature from the principal, certifying that the data are accurate, and many addendums noted by principals were not provided.

The school system provided the Globe with a copy of the review on Friday after the newspaper learned of its existence and administrative changes through unofficial channels.

The explanation for Wednesday’s executive session also raised questions.

The federal review did include some good news, noting that some Boston schools have made strides in ensuring more students receive the proper services, but it added the problem in others is “worrisome.”

The US agencies cited six schools in particular where dozens of students lacked English-language instruction: Charlestown High, East Boston High, Frederick Pilot Middle School, Orchard Gardens K-8, Tech Boston Academy, and Madison Park Technical Vocational High.

The review highlighted several other schools where many students were receiving some or all of their specialized instruction from teachers who lacked the appropriate certifications. That list included the Dever Elementary School, which is under state receivership and where 82 percent of the 210 English-language learners are in this predicament.

Jackie Reis, a state education spokeswoman, said the department could not verify the accuracy of the Dever numbers because it had not seen the federal review. But she said four teachers hold the necessary certification.

Rice said he is looking forward to the arrival later this year of the new superintendent, Tommy Chang, so the incoming schools chief can “get a handle on this and make it right.”

Related:

Walsh taps expert on English-language researcher for Boston School Committee spot

Editorial: English language learners need help, not an inflexible state mandate

James Vaznis can be reached at jvaznis@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @globevaznis.

Clarification: The state’s response to the federal review was unclear in an earlier version of this story.

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