Boston schools violated rights

Students lacking English fluency denied services

By James Vaznis
Globe Staff / October 2, 2010

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A federal investigation has determined that Boston schools violated the civil rights of thousands of students who speak limited English by failing to provide specialized instruction, leading to a settlement agreement that calls for the school district to overhaul programs and bolster teacher training, officials announced yesterday.

Slightly more than half the 8,300 students affected were not receiving appropriate instruction because ineffective testing failed to detect a lack of English fluency, the investigation found. The other students had been properly identified but not placed in classes geared for those with a language barrier. Some violations date to 2003.

Superintendent Carol R. Johnson and officials of the US Department of Education and the Department of Justice signed the agreement Thursday. Boston schools did not admit to any wrongdoing in signing the agreement, which aims to remedy the problems without going to court.

But the Justice Department reserves the right to bring legal action against the school district if it fails to implement the agreement and will conduct a comprehensive review this fall of all the district’s programs for English-language learners.

Johnson said yesterday that the district has already enacted many aspects of the agreement, the culmination of an informal inquiry by the Justice Department that began about 18 months ago and later widened into a formal investigation with the Education Department.

“I’m extremely pleased we were able to reach an agreement,’’ said Johnson, who became superintendent in 2007. “I think the work we are undertaking is ensuring [that English-language learners] have access to quality instructional programs.’’

About 28 percent of the 56,000 students in Boston schools are English-language learners.

The agreement was reached as the state and Boston schools push to close a gap in achievement between students of different backgrounds, to ensure that all students will eventually lead productive lives and not be a drain on the state’s economy.

Both in Boston and statewide, students who are not fluent in English, have among the lowest standardized test scores and high school graduation rates.

Programs for English-language learners were thrown into disarray in 2002, after Massachusetts voters abolished widespread use of bilingual education, which allows students to learn subjects in their native tongue until they are nearly fluent in English. The new law stresses teaching all subjects in English, using a student’s native tongue sparingly.

Boston’s settlement agreement follows similar accords the federal government has reached over the past two years with Somerville and Worcester to remedy civil rights violations of English-language learners.

Federal officials declined interview requests yesterday about the Boston agreement.

Thomas E. Perez, assistant attorney general for the Civil Rights Division, said in a statement that the two federal agencies “will continue to work cooperatively with the Boston public schools and its superintendent to ensure that all of its English-language learner students are afforded the services to which they are entitled.’’

Since the Justice Department began raising questions, Boston has moved to correct the problems, although at a slower pace initially than federal investigators wanted. The district has dedicated an additional $10 million this school year to bolster programs for English-language learners. Since January, more than 2,000 teachers have received some of the training outlined in the settlement agreement, so they know how to tailor instruction to students with a language barrier.

Also, more than 2,000 English language learners attended special summer school programs, and the district overhauled its system to evaluate a student’s fluency in English and retested about 7,000 students who had been improperly tested.

The agreement makes clear that the district cannot deny an English-language learner services because of a lack of space in specialized programs, a practice a state review uncovered a few years ago.

The state review is what eventually caught the Justice Department’s attention. The review found that school officials, by their own admission, were encouraging parents to decline services because programs were full or because officials were not adequately explaining educational options.

Boston school officials later disclosed that about 42 percent of its English-language learners at that time were not receiving any services.

Organizations specializing in English-language learners were appalled at how slow the Boston schools were to respond to a problem they had known about for years. But they voiced cautious optimism about the agreement.

“It’s a comprehensive and very ambitious agreement, more ambitious than I’ve seen in other parts of the country,’’ said Roger Rice of Multicultural Education, Training, and Advocacy, a national nonprofit with offices in Somerville that works on behalf of multilingual children.

He said the agreement, if fully enacted, will help students get a better education in the future, but said he is worried about those who were denied services for several years and are struggling academically.

“How can you make up for what a kid missed in their academic careers?’’ said Rice, whose organization pushed the Obama administration to remedy the Boston problems more quickly. “How about the kids who have dropped out of school? There’s no making up for them.’’

Eileen de los Reyes, assistant superintendent for English-language learners since last year, said yesterday that she is happy with the progress elementary and middle schools are making in serving all English-language learners. But more work needs to be done at the high schools, she said.

In a district of 135 schools, de los Reyes said, “you need to look at this school by school. Each school is a universe.’’

James Vaznis can be reached at

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