His son was in first grade when Ren Wu, an immigrant from China, began to understand how hard it would be for him to get an education.
His public school in Chinatown was close to home, with bilingual staff to help the child in his native language. But after two years, they asked to send him to a different school in Charlestown that offered more support for his autism.
His father was surprised, confused — and worried: His little boy was just beginning to learn English.
“Will there be someone at the new school who speaks Chinese?” Wu remembers asking.
Yes, he said he was told in response: Your son will have support in his native language.
The father signed the papers and hoped for the best. But when his child arrived in his new classroom at the Warren-Prescott K-8 School, there was no one there who spoke Chinese.
Such is the harsh reality for Boston’s 4,000 English learners with disabilities: Though state and federal laws require schools to address both needs, Boston schools too often accommodate just one — language or disability — sometimes forcing families to choose between two critical supports.
Non-English-speaking students with diagnosed disabilities are routinely denied access to instruction and support in their native language, according to families, advocates, and researchers who have documented the problem. In 2018, a city task force reviewed the individualized education programs, or IEPs, for two dozen English learners with disabilities; none of the plans included any mention of access to instruction in their native language.
“What’s needed is an integrated team process, to identify the student’s needs and address them all,” said Diana Santiago, a senior attorney with Massachusetts Advocates for Children. “It’s easier to pick one or the other — to just put them in [special education], or in an [English learner] classroom.”
Interviews with more than two dozen families, advocates, educators, and researchers point to several root causes. The district is constrained by a shortage of bilingual teachers and staff, especially in special education. Many special education teachers, and evaluators who assess disabilities, lack training in how to work with students from limited English backgrounds. And chronic turnover in district leadership has made it hard to fully implement solutions.
Some believe a lawsuit against the city on behalf of families may be necessary. In recent years, a growing number of class action suits and settlement agreements elsewhere — including Dearborn Heights, Mich., Philadelphia, Providence, and Arlington, Va. — have compelled districts to do better by their vulnerable newcomers with disabilities.
The stakes are high: More than 95 percent of English learners with disabilities fail the state MCAS exam in grades 3-8.
“We know what needs to be fixed,” said Miren Uriarte, a retired University of Massachusetts Boston professor and former Boston School Committee member who has long studied English learners. “So why can’t we do it?”
Wu’s son spent three years at the school in Charlestown where no one spoke his language. His father never stopped regretting the transfer. Because no one there could communicate with the family, Wu said, he had no idea how his son was progressing, or even what kind of classroom he was placed in.
“They said none of the documents stated that they had agreed to provide a Chinese teaching assistant,” the father recalled, speaking through a Chinese interpreter. “And when I asked how we would work it out, they said I would have to go to court.”
After a year, Wu said, he learned that his child — always a picky eater — had not eaten lunch since he enrolled at the new school. The father was aghast. “I thought, how could you not find a way to let me know that, in Chinese, so we could address the issue?” he said.
Often, the alienation of immigrant families begins with basic communication breakdowns, the fallout from a shortage of bilingual educators.
A 2018 review of staffing at 64 Boston schools — about half of all campuses — identified only 16 licensed special education teachers who were also proficient in bilingual education, according to the School Committee’s English Language Learners Task Force, which collected the data from the district.
When the tally includes all teachers who play any role in special education, who also describe themselves as bilingual, the total swells to 453, according to a Boston Public Schools spokesman. But the district acknowledges that their fluency varies, many aren’t matched with students who speak the same language, and more thoughtful placement, as well as more hiring, is needed.
“BPS is working across departments to hire more bilingual educators who can serve our students with native language support, and provide more training to current bilingual educators to support them in meeting the needs of all learners,” said the spokesman, Xavier Andrews.
Policy shifts helped create the shortage. For decades, Massachusetts led the nation in bilingual education. Then, in a 2002 referendum, voters overwhelmingly approved the so-called Unz amendment, rejecting bilingual education in favor of English-only instruction.
The state changed course again in 2017, passing new legislation that restored options for bilingual classrooms. But the legacy of the old law remained: 15 years of disinvestment in multilingual staff and programs. Boston’s school leaders only recently began work on a plan to rebuild, critics say, and still have no centralized database to track bilingual staff and deploy them where students need them most.
“There are so many schools where the languages spoken by the teachers don’t match the languages of the students,” said Uriarte, whose research linked English-only instruction to higher dropout rates for young immigrants. “The match is so important, especially for those with special needs.’”
School language barriers also hurt parents and caregivers like Wu, who are shut out when no one speaks their language.
“[They] have to figure out what to ask for, and how to ask for it, in an unfamiliar language and culture,” said Lillian Wong, a special education attorney who represents Boston parents. “The school might give you an interpreter, but it might be one who doesn’t speak your dialect, or one without experience in special education.”
And even if a parent overcomes those barriers, it doesn’t guarantee their child will get the help they need.
As soon as her daughter started kindergarten, the mother from Colombia knew something was wrong. She could see her little girl struggling to express herself, both in English and her native Spanish, and feared the child might have a learning disability. But her daughter’s school showed little concern.
“Give her another year,” the girl’s teachers told her mother, who asked that her name and the school’s name be withheld to protect her children from retaliation.
When she raised the same worry a year later, teachers dismissed her again, the mother said.
“There came a point where I said, ‘No. This has to stop,’ ” the mother recalled through a Spanish interpreter. “They were telling me, ‘She is coming from another culture, another language; she just needs time to adjust.’ And I knew something else was going on.”
Frequently, experts say, English learners who struggle are not referred for evaluation of potential learning disabilities, or face long delays, because of misunderstandings and missed signals. (They are also overdiagnosed with some disorders.) Most teachers lack the training to identify disabilities in new English speakers, and diagnostic tools are less accurate when they aren’t administered in a student’s native language, or adapted for limited English.
“Too often, an issue is swept aside as an ‘English learner problem’ when it’s actually a disability,” Wong said.
Among all Boston students in 2019, 21 percent needed special education. But among 357 English learners with limited schooling in their native countries, only 2 percent — seven students — had identified disabilities, according to a review by the nonprofit group Multicultural Education Training and Advocacy.
School administrators have at times told teachers, incorrectly, that new immigrants can’t be referred for evaluation until they learn more English, according to advocates.
“A lot of leaders don’t know the laws that govern students’ rights,” said Claudia Rinaldi, a Lasell University education professor who has studied English learners with disabilities.
It took the mother from Colombia more than two years to get her daughter help. Finally — after she paid for her own testing — the school moved her child into a smaller class with more one-on-one instruction, said the mother, and provided her with an IEP, as required by law.
But even then, the mother did not learn the details. In another violation of the law, the school gave her a copy of the IEP in English, she said — not her native Spanish.
After four years of despairing at his son’s lack of progress, Wu asked that the fifth-grader be sent to a different school. At Orchard Gardens K-8 School in Roxbury, the boy still lacked classroom support in his native Chinese, but teachers and counselors used interpreters to connect with his family.
Still, Wu saw social and academic problems that he linked to his son’s English-only placements.
“I was naïve,” he says now, “not to ask for what we needed in writing.”
To help families like his, the district needs clear, consistent protocols for supporting students with dual needs. But constant churn in leadership makes the necessary changes harder to achieve.
In the past 15 years, Boston’s schools have been led by seven different superintendents. The result is a series of aborted overhauls, “so we’re facing the same problems we were 20 years ago,” said Rinaldi.
Current Superintendent Brenda Cassellius plans to boost multilingual education, family engagement, and native language support, with investments in new translation tools, family liaisons, and social workers. But advocates say the district also needs a specific plan for English learners with disabilities, laying out what must change and who will oversee it.
“I’m worried that we’re not going to offer the kind of programs everyone around the country knows are needed,” Uriarte said. “We’re 15 or 20 years behind, and we’re asking kids to pay the price.”
If Boston does find new ways to help English learners with disabilities, the change will come too late for Wu’s son, who is a senior in high school now.
“For all of my advocacy, my son did not learn what he needed to learn,” said the father.
That failure ripples forward, he said: The less schools invest in children like his, the more support they require as adults.
After four years, he still doesn’t know what kind of classroom his son is taught in at Madison Park Vocational High School, or whether the teen is still considered an English learner. And though he has repeatedly asked the high school to help his son prepare for the workforce, Wu said, he has seen no evidence of vocational training.
He fears for his son’s future, and wonders at the system that let him fall through its cracks.
“I trusted them,” he said. “But no one recognized his needs. . . . I don’t understand why the schools could not do more.”