You have to give credit where credit is due. Classical High School in Providence has once again been rated the best high school in Rhode Island – and No. 91 nationally – by US News & World Report.
It’s quite an accomplishment, especially in a dysfunctional school system that has seen little progress from a state intervention 2 1/2 years ago and where too many teachers are just as interested in settling scores with adults (mostly at the Department of Education) than they are in moving the needle for kids.
The students and teachers at Classical deserve to be celebrated, but before we throw a Purple ticker-tape parade down Westminster Street, there’s an uncomfortable reality that needs to be confronted:
Of the 1,091 students enrolled at Classical this school year, a measly 13 of them are multi-language learners, a designation that typically means they are learning English as a second language. That’s about 1.2 percent of the school.
By comparison, 35 percent of the district’s 21,600 students are considered multi-language learners.
Surely no one would argue that there are only 13 multi-language learners in all of Providence who are qualified to attend this elite public school. And if Classical was a charter school, everyone would be outraged.
So how can this be?
One reason is pretty obvious.
The entrance exam to get into Classical is administered only in English, even though the school department touts on its website that 55 different languages are spoken by students and families in Providence, and 55 percent of students come from a household where English is not the primary language spoken.
That’s called celebrating diversity when it’s convenient, but not when it actually matters.
The most disturbing part of this is that everyone knows it’s a problem, but it’s a third-rail issue in the education politics of Providence because no one wants to be the person who screws up the one quality high school in the city.
“It’s something that we’re aware of,” Education Commissioner Angélica Infante-Green told me this week. “It’s something that we want to be very thoughtful in how we do it.”
Nick Domings, a spokesman for Providence schools, said the district is trying to get more multi-language learners enrolled at Classical.
They’ve added a multi-language specialist to the admissions team that reviews applications, and they’re considering giving multi-language learners 50 percent more time to complete the entrance exam and giving them bilingual glossaries to help – something New York City already does.
Here’s a crazy idea: Why not start by offering the exam in Spanish as well as English?
That’s not the only way to address the challenge. It will take creating a culture within the district where multi-language learners feel like they can succeed at a school like Classical. Teachers, guidance counselors, and other support staff will have to work hard keep the students on track. They might even have to offer summer programming to help kids catch up.
Because it’s an election year, I asked the Democratic candidates who are running for mayor what they think. Spoiler: They’re concerned, but they don’t want to offend anyone who thinks Classical is running just fine.
Gonzalo Cuervo said he thinks the city needs to focus on improving all high schools because the majority of students won’t be attending Classical.
Councilwoman Nirva LaFortune wants to “assess the entrance exam” while ensuring that all students are supported by teachers and staff.
Brett Smiley called the low number of English learners at Classical an “absolute reflection on how we are failing our MLL students.” He said more teachers need to become certified to teach those students.
Mike Solomon said “we should continue the expansion of dual instruction at lower grades, assess children in their native language, and create multilingual centers of achievement.”
Of course, this won’t be an immediate problem for the next mayor because the state still controls the district. Infante-Green said her office has been in talks with the US Department of Justice Civil Rights Division about ways to get more multi-language learners enrolled at Classical.
The Justice Department has been involved because in 2018, before the state takeover, it released a scathing report about Providence’s treatment of English learners. A settlement was reached, and the district has been making changes to its English-learner programming and getting more teachers certified to teach those students.
Thankfully, there’s some momentum for making more progress. A group of state lawmakers are expected to join with Governor Dan McKee, Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea (who’s also running for governor), and officials from the Rhode Island Department of Education later today to push for expanding opportunities for multi-language learners.
Every single public official who attends that press conference should take a position on whether Classical should be admitting more multi-language learners. And they should offer a plan for how to get there.
Right now, Classical expects to have 24 multi-language learners in total next school year. Maybe the candidates for governor and mayor should make it a priority to get to 10 percent MLL students by the end of their first term.
Now that would be something worth celebrating. With a Purple ticker-tape parade.