Report: English learners are ‘invisible’ in Providence schools

Providence

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — A national organization has released a blistering report on the way Providence Public Schools teach English learners, a group that makes up one-third of the students in the district.

The Council of the Great City Schools, a coalition of urban school districts across the country including Providence, was asked to conduct the study last year by former Superintendent Chris Maher, after the group first delivered a scathing report on English language learning in Providence in 2012.

Education Commissioner Angélica Infante-Green, who is taking control of the Providence schools later this fall, said she was part of the Council of the Great City Schools’ previous visit to Providence in 2012.

“I’m sorry to say that many of the findings outlined in this report mirror what I saw then,” Infante-Green said in a statement. “The difference is that the number of multilingual learners in Providence has grown exponentially in that time, and the district – and the state, for that matter – have not kept pace to support these students.”

The research team, which visited 14 schools in February, found little improvement for English learners (ELs) since its previous assessment.

“It has the same incoherent programming for ELs across grade and schools that it had seven years ago,” the 192-page report says. “Now, the challenges to improving instruction and services for ELs will be harder to meet, because attitudes have hardened, practices have further ossified, and interests are even more entrenched.”

Providence was already told by the U.S. Department of Justice last year that it was failing English learners. Part of the council’s aim in the report was to help the district implement the requirements of a settlement between the city and the DOJ.

And the report’s authors did not mince words about what they perceived as a failure to address the problems.

“External players, such as the office of the mayor, the city council, teacher’s union, the school board, the state, and others have foisted their own priorities on the schools, superseding the needs of the city’s children,” the authors wrote.

“For all intents and purposes, about one-third of the district’s enrollment is invisible,” they added.

The lengthy report found issues with the district’s practice of allocating a limited number of “seats” for English learners, which it said caused students to either wait at home for a seat to open in their local school, or students being moved to schools far away from their neighborhood.

Not every school in the district offers English as a Second Language (ESL) instruction, even though one-third of the district’s students are English learners, according to the report.

Even more troubling, the report said, is the number of parents who are waiving their child’s legal right to ESL services so they could go to their preferred school, because it didn’t have any ESL seats available.

The report called it a “troubling sign” that a large percentage of English learners who had more than seven years in the program were still testing at a level 3 on an English proficiency test, when a level 5 or 6 allows a student to exit ESL and be reclassified.

In interviews with parents and teachers, the team reported hearing comments such as “schools do not have space for ELs” and “principals are worried that ELs will affect the achievement scores of their schools.”

Among the more than 100 recommendations made by the Council, it said more professional development was needed for staff, which sometimes misdiagnosed an English learner as having special needs, placing the student in a special education classroom.

The report also pointed out that English learners don’t always have access to the most rigorous courses offered by the district, including at high-performing Classical High School. The school has only eight English learners, according to the report, in part because its entrance exam is only offered in English.

“In an interview with the Council team, a staff member expressed puzzlement about how the 2019 class president from Classical ‘did it,’ knowing she arrived in Providence at the age of 10 knowing no English. The comment suggested that expectations for such students were typically low,” the report says.

“PPSD is grateful to our colleagues at the Council of Great City Schools for their guidance in the area of multilingual learners, and I am proud of PPSD’s willingness to undertake this difficult work,” said interim Superintendent Fran Gallo. “Our focus is to build trust so as to help all of our learners feel fully supported at school, avoiding undue stress that can otherwise be overwhelming. Every recommendation in this report provides a step to support growth toward independent learning and success for our multilingual learners.”

Gallo said a number of actions have been taken since the DOJ settlement last year, including re-screening 1,000 students to make sure they’re getting appropriate services, increasing the stipend for ESL teachers, buying new ESL materials, providing new training to principals and translating forms into more languages.

In the next year, she says the district is planning to expand the number of certified ESL teachers, revise information shared with families to make sure they are aware of their rights, and create a parent advisory committee, among other steps.

“The status quo has failed our kids and it has especially failed our most vulnerable students,” said Mayor Jorge Elorza, D-Providence. “Regardless of language, ability, or neighborhood, every Providence youth deserves to feel seen, valued and empowered to reach their growing potential. Our EL students are our future, and I will continue to work with all partners and stakeholders to create the meaningful, impactful change we need to see in Providence Schools so that every student is set up for true success in our classrooms.”

The Council’s team included EL administrators from cities including Boston, Seattle, Buffalo and San Diego.

The team went into the following schools: Carl G. Lauro Elementary, Lilian Feinstein Elementary, Asa Messer Elementary, Leviton Dual Language, Reservoir Ave Elementary, George J. West Elementary, Anthony Carnevale Elementary, Del Sesto Middle, Roger Williams Middle, West Broadway Middle, Central High, Classical High, Mt. Pleasant High and the Newcomer program.

While the report focused just on English learning, the authors specifically said they observed similar problems that researchers from Johns Hopkins University also reported this year.

Infante-Green said while RIDE has taken action on several items, the report makes clear there is a “tremendous challenge” ahead.

“Our multilingual learners are being left behind, and we cannot allow it to happen any longer,” Infante-Green said.

Steph Machado (smachado@wpri.com) covers Providence, politics and more for WPRI 12. Follow her on Twitter and on Facebook

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