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THE GREAT DIVIDE

Controversy roils the future of English learners education in Boston Public Schools

María Mejía talked to her son Joangel while he played in the playground near his school.Erin Clark/Globe Staff

A few months ago, María Mejía’s son traveled to her native Dominican Republic with his grandmother. Almost immediately, the 8-year-old wanted to go home, she said. No one spoke English, he complained. He felt uncomfortable in a country where Spanish is the dominant tongue. His admission nearly broke his mother’s heart.

“You can put the language in front of him and he won’t understand it,” Mejía, 45, of Roxbury, said through an interpreter.

Mejía’s son is a second grader in the South End at Blackstone Elementary School, where 48 percent of the students are non-native English speakers and classes are taught entirely in English. Although Mejía speaks in Spanish with her son at home, she fears, little by little, he’ll lose their common tongue, and with that, his connection to his roots and any academic and professional opportunities afforded by being bilingual.

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Mejía and other parents from diverse backgrounds have long complained about how Boston Public Schools teach their children, prioritizing learning English through immersion over retaining and developing their native language skills. But the district’s latest plan for educating its multilingual students has stoked fears that BPS is putting not only children’s bilingualism at risk, but also their ability to learn other subjects, such as math, science, and history.

On Oct. 18, BPS unveiled a multipart inclusion plan to overhaul its special education and multilingual programs, made as part of a deal with the state to avoid a takeover of the district and a label of “underperforming.” But the plan has been mired in controversy from the start: Two weeks after BPS formally introduced the plan, nine members of a 13-person task force charged with advising the School Committee on how to best serve the needs of English learners resigned in protest, calling the changes “ill-advised” and “harmful” to students.

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Some Spanish-speaking families have begun circulating an online petition, demanding that BPS immediately postpone implementing the inclusion plan, arguing that parents weren’t given enough time to participate in or understand it. In late December, several met with representatives from the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, which is overseeing BPS’s progress in addressing its longstanding problems, to urge the agency to push back on the district.

“They’re trying to make a plan for inclusion,” said Mejía, one of the parent advocates who met with DESE, “but it’s going to hurt a lot of children.”

Critics say BPS has historically failed to serve the needs of its English learners, who equal nearly a third of all students in the district. The district’s treatment of English learners has been subjected to state and federal intervention for failing to provide students with appropriate services, and the office in charge of English learners has been rife with turnover.

BPS sees “concerns mostly in Black or white,” said former School Committee member Miren Uriarte, who resigned from the English learners task force. “And immigrant kids,” she added, “did not fit on either side.”

Uriarte said the district should significantly expand bilingual programs, so non-native English speakers can learn core academic subjects in their primary language. A retired UMass Boston professor, Uriarte has conducted research on the district’s methods for teaching students learning English and found that English learners who are only taught in English have worse academic outcomes, including far higher drop-out rates.

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Under the district’s plan, students learning English will be split from their English-speaking peers for up to an hour and a half of direct English instruction a day, rather than spending their entire days in Sheltered English Immersion, or SEI, classrooms, where they are taught separately from their English-speaking peers.

The plan will gradually take effect, and by the 2026-27 school year, all English learners in grades K-12 will be taught in inclusive settings with access to English as a Second Language, or ESL, services. Teams at every school were expected to deliver school-level plans on Dec. 5, including recommendations on shifting resources and ensuring they have the necessary staff.

BPS guidance for inclusion planning teams states the future of English learner education in the district could include dual-language programming — considered among researchers to be the gold standard of bilingual education — if schools choose to offer it. The district’s incoming chief of multilingual and multicultural education, Joelle Gamere, the seventh person to helm the office since 2019, told the Globe in an interview she was committed to expanding dual-language programs, noting that teaching students in both their native language and English yields better results, based on her experience starting Mattahunt Elementary’s Haitian Creole academy.

At the same time, the district has rolled back specific goals for expanding dual-language programs: In a strategic plan submitted to the state in 2022, the district said it would add 25 new bilingual programs by June 2025. A revised plan from October makes no mention of the 25 new dual-language programs the district had previously pledged to launch.

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Sarah Fuller, an inclusion specialist at the Blackstone School, said while teachers support inclusion, schools haven’t been given enough time to develop their inclusion plans — especially for implementing more complex programs like dual-language — and guidance from the district has been limited and unclear. And to make inclusion work, Fuller said, high-needs schools like hers will need additional staff, including more ESL teachers. But after Blackstone submitted its plan in December, which calls for hiring more personnel, the district told school leadership they “were asking for too much,” Fuller said.

“We’re just so frustrated,” she said. “It all seems like the district is either ignoring or does not care.”

An SEI teacher on the inclusion planning team at a high-needs elementary school said she also is in favor of inclusion in theory, but she worries students like hers, many of whom have low-level English proficiency, will fall behind in a general education setting without more thoughtful planning and more staff. In SEI classrooms, non-native English speakers are taught with curriculum designed specifically for them, and they have more opportunities to communicate with peers and teachers in their native language.

“If they’re fully surrounded in English, it’s very overwhelming,” said the teacher, who asked not to be identified to protect her job, which hangs in the balance under the district’s new plan. “They don’t participate. They’re not really getting work done.”end optional cut

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District officials have said the new inclusion plan aligns with feedback from and standards set by DESE and the US Department of Justice. A routine monitoring assessment last summer by DESE of the district’s SEI programs found they do not meet current state requirements and that some students in these programs feel isolated from their English-speaking peers.

BPS has also defended the plan, citing an August 2022 letter from the Justice Department stating the district must avoid “unnecessarily” segregating English learners.

The Justice Department has never mandated the complete dismantling of BPS’s SEI programs, said Roger Rice, executive director of Multicultural Education, Training and Advocacy, an organization that sued the district in the ‘90s for failing to adequately support its growing English learner population.

In 2010, after probes by the US Department of Justice and Department of Education found the district had violated the civil rights of English learners, BPS reached a settlement agreement with the federal government, requiring the district to reform its programs for English learners. The settlement lists a variety of programs that BPS can provide its English learners, including SEI and bilingual education, stipulating only that the district must avoid completely segregating them from their English-speaking peers and include them in general education classes such as music, gym, and art.

“In other words, DOJ is not telling Boston how it has to teach [English learners],” Rice said.

The state’s current guidance on English learner services also explicitly encourages school districts to use a variety of English learner programs, including SEI, dual-language, and transitional bilingual programs, noting that students’ needs vary significantly.

“It’s all a cover to move kids from their current placements in SEI into general ed. with ESL,” said John Mudd, one of the task force members who resigned, of the district’s plan. “They’re doubling down in the wrong direction.”

Just 7 percent of English learners are in the district’s dual-language programs in which students receive instruction in two languages. Meanwhile, nearly half of beginner to intermediate level English learners already are being taught in general education classrooms, with as much as an hour and a half of ESL instruction during the school day, according to district projections, while the rest are mostly in SEI classrooms.

If the Blackstone had offered a dual-language program, Mejía said she would have seized on the opportunity for her son. She wants him to retain his ability to speak Spanish as she considers his future career and college prospects.

“He’ll go to university, get a job, and he’ll be able to help a lot of people who speak multiple languages,” she said. “If they know more than one language, they’re able to open many doors.”


Deanna Pan can be reached at deanna.pan@globe.com. Follow her @DDpan.