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Most BPS students learning English aren’t getting appropriate services

Danilza Martinez embraced her eleven-year-old daughter, Dashary.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

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The Boston school system has lost significant ground in meeting the educational needs of students learning English, with nearly 60 percent not getting enough specialized instruction this fall. Immigrants and other students learning English have not been assigned the right classes or placed with a certified teacher for enough time, at the highest rate in seven years, according to documents obtained by the Globe.

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The lack of appropriate services adds to the challenges many of the affected 6,200 students have experienced during the pandemic, marked by difficulties accessing learning online from home when school buildings were shut down. And it comes amid huge upheavals in the leadership of the district’s English learner programs, which have been led by at least five different people since Superintendent Brenda Cassellius began her tenure a little more than two years ago.

The district’s growing problems with its English learners program is frustrating many parents, students, and advocates. The Boston school system has been operating under settlement agreements with the US departments of Justice and Education since 2010, after the agencies found the district was violating students’ civil rights because their testing methods missed thousands of students who lacked English fluency and the district failed to provide specialized instruction to students who were already classified as English learners.

“It’s all very concerning,” said Roger Rice, executive director of Multicultural Education Training and Advocacy, Inc., a national nonprofit that monitors equitable treatment of English learners in Boston and elsewhere. “What I don’t get is why the number of kids being served appropriately would fall.”

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District leaders blame the pandemic for preventing educators from testing students last year to place them in the right classes and for the staffing shortages that have deprived students of services, as well as turnover at the department overseeing English learner education, according to a district report to the Department of Justice.

BPS did not respond to questions about the documents or provide any more explanation for the significant drop in students served.

Dashary Martinez, 11, right, played with her friend after school. Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

Eleven-year-old Dashary Martinez moved to Boston from the Dominican Republic in July of 2020. During testing of her English skills when she registered for school that month, she could answer her name and favorite color, but just shook her head at the other three questions in the online screening exam.

She started her American education online. The best part of virtual fourth grade at the Blackstone Elementary School were small-group break-out sessions where Dashary worked on pronunciation. “I learned a little,” she said in Spanish. “But I’d like to learn more.’'

State and federal law requires that immigrants like Dashary be tested each year to measure their English proficiency. The test is typically given in the spring to measure what students learned that year. But last school year, even though Dashary returned to school in person in April, she and her mother say she was never tested.

“My fear is that she didn’t advance last year, since they were all remote,” said Danilza Martinez, sitting at a South End playground while Dashary and a schoolmate played with dolls. “I can’t speak with the teacher, because she only speaks English. So I don’t know how she’s learning this year, what methodology they’re using, nothing.”

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Danilza Martinez held hands with her eleven year-old daughter, Dashary, as they walked home together. Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

Dashary is among the nearly 6,000 students who haven’t been tested this year to determine what services and instruction they need. (The number might be even higher, because the BPS report only included 10,587 students out of about 15,000 English learners in the district.)

Without up-to-date test scores showing Dashary’s English proficiency, it’s not clear how schools assigned her and other students to classes this year and may explain why so many of Boston’s students aren’t receiving the appropriate specialized instruction from a qualified teacher. The share of students receiving all four components— enough time, the right type, a qualified teacher, and learning with the right students — dropped to 41 percent from 65 percent last year.

Failure to take the test last year is a nationwide problem, with around 30 percent fewer students completing one of the major standardized tests measuring English language ability and the test used in Boston. The test is typically administered in the spring, and required to be given in person, even in districts studying remotely.

But the students around the country who did manage to take the test showed a decline in English skills, particularly in speaking, compared to 2019 and 2020. In Boston, students making progress overall dropped to 19 percent from 44 percent the year before.

To make up for the students who didn’t take the test last year, Boston’s district leaders say they are alternatively using a simple screening exam to determine students’ proficiency levels, which advocates complain won’t measure a student’s ability with any nuance.

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But Boston’s problems go beyond testing. Even if educators test all students and determine what they need, the district is grappling with significant staffing challenges that could prevent them from providing specialized instruction with a qualified teacher to students learning English.

The district is still trying to hire 30 English as a Second Language Teachers, according to a letter sent to the English Language Learners Task Force, a group created by the School Committee in 2009 to provide guidance on policies regarding students learning English.

“We recognize that our schools across the district are faced with a labor shortage.... We will continue to widen our recruitment strategy,” read the letter.

It’s not clear why the district appeared to post the jobs in September and October, after the school year started. Staffing shortages have dogged schools nationwide as many educators wanted a break from teaching or to take advantage of new opportunities created by a flood of federal relief money to schools.

The staffing shortage also may explain why the district can’t account for about 2,000 English learners since there is no data for them in the district’s centralized student information system.

“We have some of the lowest level of data entry compliance in the past 6 years,” reads the district letter to the task force. The district is working with schools to address the “root” of the problem, according to the letter.

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Instability in the central office department that provides instruction and support to English learners may have complicated the district’s ability to hire, oversee compliance with the Department of Justice, and overhaul education for English learners following a 2017 law that essentially reversed a voter initiative mandating English-only instruction.

While the district has recently created a Haitian Creole and Vietnamese language immersion program, and plans to start others, BPS has made little progress meeting parent demand for more dual-language programs, where students learn part time in another language. District leaders have said they aim to increase native language instruction for more English learners, not just the ones in dual-language programs, but hasn’t settled on a plan to do that.

The rapid turnover among administrators leading the department may be partly to blame. The newest assistant superintendent of the Office of English Learners, Aketa Narang Kapur, took over just last month.

“The Office of English Learners has experienced significant leadership changes over the years and staffing shortages as of late that has diminished the capacity for support to schools,” read the central office letter to the English Language Learners Task Force.

Advocates also have raised concerns about a BPS policy decision described in Boston’s Oct. 15 report to the Department of Justice to move English learners who score a three for two consecutive years on English proficiency exams into general education. (On a scale of one to five, one is the least proficient and five is the most.)

According to the agreement with the Department of Justice, level-three students are entitled to receive an hour a day of specialized reading and writing instruction, but Boston’s report doesn’t indicate how these students will receive any special services.

In response, Suzanne Lee and Ernani DeAraujo, co-chairs of the English Language Learners Task Force, wrote to Cassellius, calling for change. “We are concerned that what is described may constitute “dumping” students into General Education….General Education is not the appropriate setting for [level three] students.”


Bianca Vázquez Toness can be reached at bianca.toness@globe.com. Follow her @biancavtoness.