“I have nine English translation dictionaries on my bookshelf,” said Mathew McLean, principal of Pawtucketville Memorial Elementary School in Lowell. “It’s hard to define the number of languages spoken in our school because there are different dialects within a language, like Hmong [Southeast Asia], that make it almost a completely different language.”
Pawtucketville went from borderline failure to one of the top-performing elementary schools in the state by embracing its diversity and viewing the nearly one-quarter of students that are English Language Learners as a plus, McLean said.
“When a kid shows up with zero English, whether it be from Iraq or Cambodia, we simply do what we need to do,” said McLean.
Broad community support for immigrants, parental involvement, and a commitment to excellence for all students are common themes at the state’s most diverse and successful schools.
“We are educating the 21st century workforce,” said Kathleen Smith, superintendent of the Brockton public schools. “The United States is very diverse and being bilingual is an advantage.
“Our first goal is instructional excellence for every student. We have the same expectation for every student. Diversity is the norm at Brockton High. Everyone participates together, whether it be on sports teams, in music programs, or on stage in theater programs.”
In 2016, Brockton High was ranked as a Level 1 school — the state’s highest category — and English was not the first language for about 46 percent of its 4,264 students.
The story is similar at the John F. Kennedy Middle School in Waltham, where English was secondary for about one-third of the 505 students in 2016. The school is ranked as Level 2, but exceeded its goals in educating ELL and former ELL students.
“Waltham has always been diverse,” said Drew Echelson, the district superintendent. “We have a history of welcoming immigrants. We are lucky to have a community that cares about education for all students.”
Massachusetts schools are becoming more diverse. English was not the first language of 20.1 percent of state public school students last year, compared with 17.8 percent three years earlier.
Statistics alone cannot capture the challenges facing linguistically diverse schools.
While Brockton High has a significant population from Cape Verde, where the official language is Portuguese, “Many families speak a mixture of Portuguese and Cape Verdean Creole,” said Smith.
Getting families involved is a big part of the reason 88 percent of ELL students graduated from Brockton High on time — within four years — last spring.
“The language service for the parents is fundamental for them to connect with the school population and to be a player in their children’s education and success,” said Martine Andrade through a community translator. Andrade and her daughter, Karla Andrade-Amdo, now a junior at Brockton High, emigrated from Cape Verde in 2013.
“Research shows the more engaged the parents, the higher the student achievement,” said Smith. “Our staff works really hard to provide information to parents in their native language, to make them part of the education process, enabling all parents to become leaders in the school community and community as a whole.”
All three schools have summer workshops where students can develop their English and other academic skills. In Brockton, many students gather to work out for the upcoming sports seasons.
Brockton High has become a model for bilingual excellence, developing English proficiency while simultaneously valuing native languages and cultural backgrounds. One of the measures Brockton has pioneered is dual language instruction, where English-speaking students and nonnative students learn each other’s languages.
“Being bilingual is an important skill,” said Smith. “Bilingual students have greater cognitive flexibility, and that can transfer into academic success.”
Brockton recognizes the accomplishments of these students with a biliteracy diploma.
At the Kennedy in Waltham, about 28 percent of students are Latino. The city has one of the largest Guatemalan populations in the state, with some 3,000 residents from the Central American country, as of the 2010 Census. While Spanish is the primary language, there are about 20 indigenous languages as well.
“Middle school [grades 6-8] can be a difficult transition for all students,” said Echelson. “Some of these ELL students have not been in school for years. Their age may not match up with their academic needs. The later they come into the system, the harder it is.”
In Lowell, Pawtucketville Elementary is prepared for students from anywhere in the world. The city has the largest Cambodian population in the state, with close to 15,000 residents, according to the 2010 Census.
“We have kids come to us from refugee camps and war-torn areas of the world,” said McLean, the principal. “Often there are traumas in the student’s past that do not show at first because of the language barrier.”
The Massachusetts English Language Education in Public Schools Initiative, passed as a ballot question in 2002, requires that all public school children be taught all subjects in English. Educators and politicians have long debated the effectiveness of immersion into English-only classrooms.
Echelson and Smith are among those who believe that local decision-makers need more flexibility in providing an effective education program for ELL students.
Massachusetts lawmakers agree. A House and Senate Conference Committee is working on updated legislation that would allow local school districts to tailor their programs to students’ needs.
McLean sees the activities of the school day working for his pre-K to Grade 4 ELL students in Lowell.
“This gets them into the social fabric of the school,” he said. “They eat in the cafeteria, play with classmates, and learn English while doing the simple things like lining up for dismissal.”