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Student fluency woes rising

New testing finds 28% in Hub need help in English

By James Vaznis
Globe Staff / July 8, 2010

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The number of Boston school students identified as lacking fluency in English surged dramatically over the past school year, presenting further challenges for a school district already under federal investigation for failing to provide adequate programs for students trying to learn the language.

Such students now number nearly 16,000, about 28 percent of the district’s total enrollment, according to new data released by the district. Last fall, the group consisted of more than 11,000 students.

Much of the increase emerged after school officials complied with a federal directive to retest thousands of students who were improperly evaluated over the last seven years for English fluency, causing them not to be identified for services. Those students were tested only on how well they speak and listen in English, but not their ability to read and write in the language.

The retesting effort, carried out over the past six months, identified 4,269 additional students in need of specialized instruction. The students, who have low MCAS scores, run the gamut: Some barely grasp English, while others are almost fluent.

“It’s a substantial increase, but this was a once-in-a-lifetime situation’’ said Eileen de los Reyes, Boston’s assistant superintendent for English-language learners. “One thing that is very clear to us is that students in this group need an academic intervention.’’

The failure of Boston schools to properly identify and provide services to the students could play a big factor in their poor academic performance. Students lacking fluency in English have among the lowest MCAS scores and graduation rates in Boston and statewide, potentially limiting their job options later in life.

School officials have begun meeting with parents of the newly identified students to explain educational options to them. They have created a special summer school program to serve approximately 3,300 of the newly identified students, who will require additional help when the school year begins.

The rapid increase is adding urgency to the district’s efforts to bring programs that serve English-language learners into compliance with state and federal civil rights laws.

A state review two years ago revealed numerous problems, such as school employees encouraging parents to decline services because programs were full or not properly testing students for English fluency. The district revealed that more than 4,000 students already identified as English-language learners were not receiving any services, but state education officials suspected the number was much higher because of inadequate testing and identification.

The US departments of education and justice, dissatisfied with Boston’s pace in fixing the problems, subsequently launched their own investigation, which has brought federal investigators into school district offices this week, their third such visit.

Boston’s retesting of students is a big step forward in bolstering the quality of education for English-language learners and for accepting the failures of the past, said Miren Uriarte, coauthor of a report that called attention to the problems in Boston schools.

“To me, it’s an indicator of a changing environment,’’ said Uriarte, who coauthored the report for the Mauricio Gastón Institute for Latino Community Development and Public Policy at the University of Massachusetts Boston and the Center for Collaborative Education. “The federal review has highlighted for a lot of people how serious the problem is and has made movement in an areas where people thought movement was not possible.’’

The growth in the number of English-language learners has challenged school districts statewide. Many programs were thrown into disarray, specialists say, after voters in 2002 abolished widespread use of bilingual education, which allows students to learn subjects in their native tongue until they master English.

The new law stresses teaching all subjects in English for nonnative speakers, using a student’s native language only sparingly. Instruction generally takes place in a separate setting or in a regular classroom amid native English-speaking students.

In making the switch, many districts, such as Boston, failed to provide appropriate staffing, training, and programs, either because of funding shortages or misunderstanding of the legal requirements, specialists say.

Over the last year, Boston has invested millions of dollars to revamp programs, hire dozens of additional teachers to work directly with English-language learners, and train traditional classroom teachers to work with the students. It is planning to spend another $10 million on such efforts this year.

Some advocates for English-language learners question Boston’s ability to properly serve all such students, especially in lean budget times.

“Clearly, it’s a significant number of kids, and our concern is now that they have identified these kids, what are they going to do with them?’’ said Roger Rice, executive director of Multicultural Education, Training & Advocacy, a national organization that represents linguistic minorities and has an office in Somerville. “Are they going to design programs to meet their needs. . . . We are talking about kids who missed two, three, four, and five years of English-language learning programs.’’

De los Reyes said the district aims to ensure all English-language learners are receiving extra support this coming school year. She said the district and the federal investigators are working toward an agreement on what changes will be made to programs that serve the students.

“Now the question in the years to come is how do we make sure we keep the momentum and English-language learners front and center in the district,’’ de los Reyes said.

James Vaznis can be reached at jvaznis@globe.com.

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