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Justice Department letter describes how Providence set up English-learning students to fail

The state is taking over Providence schools, a report found myriad troubles. (Lane Turner/Globe Staff/File) Lane Turner/Globe Staff

PROVIDENCE – The US Justice Department last year found that the Providence school system was setting up English learning students “to struggle and too often, to fail,” according to a never-before released letter sent to the city in 2018.

The scathing, 18-page letter from the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division found the school department had for years failed its English learning student population, a finding that prompted the city to announce last year that it was overhauling its programs and hiring more teachers who are certified to teach those students.

“Our review uncovered that the District has failed to take ‘appropriate action to overcome language barriers’ by placing hundreds of ELs in schools and programs that lack the services the students need, without obtaining voluntary and informed waivers of services from their parents,” investigators wrote.


The letter was provided by the city a day before the Justice Department was expected to release it in response to a federal Freedom of Information Act request from the Globe. The findings are another example of the challenges ahead as the state takes control of the capital city’s struggling school system.

Nearly one third of Providence 24,000 students are considered English learners, but the Justice Department letter offers the clearest portrait yet of how the district has repeatedly let down that population, often depriving them of the same educational experience as their English-speaking peers.

For example, of the district’s 1,083 middle school students classified as English learners during the 2016-17 school year, only one of them was enrolled in an advanced academic program. Investigators also found Classical High School, a test-in school that often ranks among the best school in Rhode Island, had just one English learner enrolled that year.

The letter goes on to accuse the district of improperly counseling parents of English learners that they needed to sign a document waiving their child’s right to English language programming if they wanted to remain in certain schools. It also said the district was failing to provide teachers and administrators with adequate resources to instruct students.


At Mount Pleasant High School, the investigators found students who were supposed to receive English-learning programming at least three periods each day were only getting it three days a week. At other schools, programming that was supposed to incorporate English as a second language wasn’t happening at all.

“These failures explain at least in part why over 750 of the District’s EL students still lack proficiency in English 6 to 13 years after their enrollment,” the letter states.

Emily Crowell, a spokesperson for Mayor Jorge Elorza, declined to comment on the letter, except to say the city is in the process of implementing a settlement it entered into with the Justice Department last year.

The agreement forced Providence to mandate that all new teachers be certified to teach English learners or commit to becoming certified. The district also agreed to recruit more English-learner certified teachers and properly train administrators.

The district also agreed to revise the way it identifies English-learning students and places them in schools.

At the time of the 2018 settlement, Elorza was facing a Democratic primary challenge from two candidates, including a former school administrator who made the investigation into English learners a top campaign issue. Elorza was easily re-elected.

The release of the Justice Department letter also comes as the state prepares to take control of Providence schools following the release of an unrelated report from researchers at Johns Hopkins University that found widespread dysfunction throughout the district.


Education Commissioner Angélica Infante-Green, who was hired as the state’s top school official earlier this year, has vowed to use her deep experience with English learners to turn around the city’s schools. During her time in the New York State Education Department, she helped craft the state’s blueprint for English learners, a widely-respected guide to support those students.

The Rhode Island ACLU filed suit against the district earlier last month seeking records related to the Justice Department’s investigation. The district denied reporters’ requests for the letter that sparked the probe last year, but the Justice Department is expected to release it Tuesday.

Dan McGowan can be reached at Follow him on Twitter at @danmcgowan.