PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – The Providence school department has agreed to reform its programs for English-language learners after a U.S. Department of Justice probe found the district violated federal law by failing to provide adequate services to those students.

Under the terms of a settlement agreement announced Monday, Providence will revise the way it identifies and places English-learning students in school while also providing more courses to students learning English as a second language.

The settlement also mandates that all newly-posted teacher positions in the city must require that employees be certified or become certified to teach English learners. The district has agreed to actively recruit more teachers who are certified and properly train school administrators.

“As a result of this settlement agreement, English learner students will now receive all of the services they are legally entitled to and deserve,” U.S. Attorney Stephen G. Dambruch said in a prepared statement.

Providence school officials say nearly a third of the district’s 24,000 students are English-language learners, but only 20% of teachers have ESL certifications. The district estimates that nearly 60% of its students come from homes where English is not the primary language spoken.

This district announced in January it would partner with Roger Williams University to offer 100 city teachers a low-cost way to become certified to teach English learners. The settlement requires the district to offer incentives to teachers to become certified, but the program has not been finalized, according to Laura Hart, a spokesperson for Providence schools.

The Justice Department notified Providence in March that it found at least 12 conditions in city schools that violated a provision in the federal Equal Educational Opportunities Act of 1974 requiring educational agencies to help students overcome language barriers.

The probe found the district placed hundreds of English learners in schools that lacked services the students needed without receiving prior approval from their parents; operated an “educationally unsound” program for some English learners; failed to adequately implement or properly staff English learner programs; segregated some English-learning students in a certain program “for an unreasonable amount of time;” and lacked sufficient materials to implement English learner programs.

The Justice Department also said Providence failed to adequately train principals; was not timely in identitying all English learners; did not properly communicate with parents who have limited English proficiency; did not provide English learners with equal opportunities to participate in specialized programs; used “inappropriate exit criteria” and did not adequately monitor former English learners; and did not properly evaluate its English learner programs for effectiveness.

Hart acknowledged the settlement “does have repercussions” for the existing Providence teachers’ contract, “especially in the areas of certification and professional development.” The union has been working under an expired contract since last September.

In a statement, Superintendent Christopher Maher said the district has been working the Justice Department for 18 months to review instructional methods for English learners. He said the process was “cordial and collaborative.”

“We agree with the department that Providence Public Schools must do more to support its English learners,” Maher said. “In particular, we acknowledge that our staffing has not kept up with the accelerated growth of English Learners in our school system.”

Maher has long pointed to funding as a key reason Providence has struggled to support its English learners. After years of dedicating no funding specifically for English learners, state officials have included $2.5 million in each of the last two fiscal years for all districts to provide services. English learners are the fastest-growing student group in in Rhode Island.

In Providence, officials say they have included an additional $1.1 million in the current fiscal year’s budget for new personnel and programming directly related to English learners. The district also plans to expand its newcomer program to Mount Pleasant High School for recent arrivals to the country. It has also committed to a better outcome-tracking system for English learners.

Hart said it is still unclear how much Providence will spend to implement the entire settlement with the Justice Department. The agreement remains in effect until the district submits a report to the department on Oct. 21, 2021.

Other provisions of the settlement include a requirement that Providence develop a K-12 curriculum specifically for students learning English as a second language; a requirement to provide better translation services to parents; and a requirement to improve reporting on English learners.

“At Providence Public Schools, we believe strongly that English learners are assets to our school communities and bring rich cultural and lived experiences to our classrooms,” Maher said. “We are committed to investing in the necessary resources to make sure they succeed.”

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Dan McGowan ( covers politics, education and the city of Providence for Follow him on Facebook and Twitter: @danmcgowan