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At Providence’s best high school, something is missing: English learners

Classical High School in Providence. (Lane Turner/Globe Staff/File) Lane Turner/Globe Staff

PROVIDENCE — In a school district that has long been plagued by dysfunction and poor performance, Classical High School has stood out as the exception to the rule.

It’s routinely ranked as one of the best high schools in Rhode Island, with an alumni network that compares favorably to some of the region’s most prestigious private schools. Providence’s last two mayors went to Classical, as did three former governors, a former US senator, and the co-managing partner at Bain Capital.

But for the ever-increasing number of Providence students who are learning English as a second language, the barrier for entry to Classical is remarkably high. The admissions exam is offered only in English, despite nearly a third of the district’s 24,000 students being designated as English learners.


One result: Of the 1,092 students enrolled at Classical this year, eight are English learners.

The disparity between English-learning students at Classical and those who attend other high schools in the city has caught the attention of the US Justice Department, which last year sent district leaders a letter raising concerns that English learners don’t have the same opportunity to participate in specialized programming as students who speak English as their first language.

While the district reached a settlement with the Justice Department aimed at improving outcomes for English learners — most of whom are Spanish speakers — City Council President Sabina Matos is calling for the city to take more action to support those students, particularly those who might want to attend Classical.

Matos, who grew up in the Dominican Republic and learned English while attending Rhode Island College, said having an admissions exam that is only in one language “perpetuates the harmful stereotype that non-English speakers aren’t as capable or as intelligent as their English-speaking peers.”

“This English-only practice systematically discriminates against students who may possess a mastery in areas like math, science, or history but are barred for simply not speaking the ‘right’ language,” she said.


Faced with a graduation rate that exceeds 97 percent and some of the highest proficiency rates in math and English in the state, some city officials have been hesitant to call for any changes to Classical’s admissions process.

Mayor Jorge Elorza, a son of Guatemalan immigrants who graduated from Classical in 1994, said in August he supports the existing entry process at the school, but he issued a statement late Monday saying he would be willing to consider an admissions exam in other languages.

As it stands, approximately 1,000 students apply to Classical each year, and around 300 are accepted. The district offers its standard admissions test to measure academic abilities in English as well as the Naglieri Nonverbal Ability Test, which assesses a student’s cognitive abilities. An eight-member committee also reviews each application.

Thomas Flanagan, Providence’s chief academic officer, said the district is proud of Classical’s diversity, noting that 76 percent of students are not white. He said 61 current Classical students have been enrolled in English learning programs in the past. But he acknowledged that offering the admissions exam in a different language is an idea worth exploring.

“We know that this is something that we have to address,” Flanagan said.

The rest of the district has other problems.

Woeful test scores, poor student and teacher morale, and dreadful building conditions have prompted the state to take control of Providence schools. The takeover was announced after researchers from Johns Hopkins University released a scathing report in June that compared the city to some of the lowest-performing districts in the country.


Following the report, Education Commissioner Angélica Infante-Green, a recent arrival from New York, declared she wouldn’t send her children to any of the city’s public schools. Indeed, she enrolled them in private schools in East Providence.

As she crafts a turnaround plan for Providence schools, Infante-Green said she wants to create pathways for multilingual learners that will provide them with the support they need. She said evidence shows students who enroll in English-learning classes and then move into regular classes are far more likely to be successful.

But Infante-Green conceded that she is alarmed by the lack of English learners at Classical.

“Classical has its share of challenges, but it is clear that students there are significantly outperforming their peers, and we need to create the conditions where multilingual students are able to attend and thrive in that environment,” she said in a written statement last week “Those numbers need to change.”

During a multiyear review of Providence schools that started in 2016, the Justice Department also flagged the lack of English learners enrolled at Classical or in other advanced programs as a problem.

At other large high schools in the district, more than 30 percent of students were considered English learners. At Classical, one student held that designation during the 2016-17 school year, according to a letter issued by the department.


“Though the district does not have a policy that categorically excludes ELs from these programs, we are concerned that the district’s practices are deterring ELs from participating or remaining in these specialized programs or delaying their access to them,” the letter stated.

English learners are Rhode Island’s fastest-growing student population, having increased from 7,500 students in 2008 to 15,200 last school year. In Providence, which is home to nearly half of those students, officials have established a newcomer academy and lobbied state lawmakers for more funding for those students.

Still, the fact that less than 1 percent of students at Classical are English learners is heartbreaking, according to Marcela Betancur, the executive director of the Latino Policy Institute at Roger Williams University.

“We continue to undermine ELL students,” Betancur said. “Just because a student is an ELL student doesn’t mean their capacity and intelligence is any lower than native speakers.”

Matos, a term-limited council president who is eyeing a run for mayor in 2022, said the city needs to prove it is committed to improving outcomes for English learners.

“If we as a city are serious about being welcoming to newcomers from near and afar, then we also have to be serious about eliminating the walls that stand in the way of their success,” Matos said.

Dan McGowan can be reached at dan.mcgowan@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @danmcgowan.