PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — On a recent Wednesday in Denise Backman’s class at Young Woods Elementary, students got together to talk about outer space.

Split into groups, they deciphered a series of statements, such as: “True or False? Astronauts shrink in space.”

It looked like any other fifth-grade classroom. But roughly half of Mrs. Backman’s class is made up of English learners — also known as multilingual learners — and the other half are general education students.

It’s a new style of teaching for Backman, who has taught English as a Second Language for years in classes where every student is a multilingual learner, a practice known as “sheltered” instruction.

Backman says this new integrated model is better. Instead of the teacher being the only fluent English speaker in the room, students have a host of peers speaking the language as well.

“The growth that my MLL students have made just this year is phenomenal,” Backman told Target 12, pointing out that in the groups she assigned, general education students — many of whom are bilingual — were helping their Spanish-speaking peers understand the outer space facts.

“They’re using English a lot more than they did when I taught sheltered instruction,” Backman said.

The number of integrated classrooms like Backman’s has increased sevenfold in the past four years, according to data provided by the Providence Public School District, which has been reforming its English learner programs in the wake of the U.S. Department of Justice’s 2018 finding that the district was failing these students.

The proportion of the student body designated as English learners keeps growing: more than 7,700 of Providence students are currently multilingual learners, making up 35% of the district’s nearly 22,000 students.

Federal investigators in 2018 found Providence was violating those students’ civil rights in a dozen ways, including by not providing adequate English language services taught by a teacher fully certified in English as a Second Language, or ESL.

The district was placing students in schools that didn’t even have English learner programs, the DOJ found, and was failing to staff the programs it had with qualified teachers. Plus, the district had failed to even identify all of the English learners in the first place, to make sure they were receiving services.

Providence settled with the DOJ in August 2018, promising to reform its programs and comply with the law. The district hired Jennifer Efflandt, a former multilingual learner and Classical High School graduate, to be the executive director of multilingual learners.

“One of the things that I think got us in trouble is that in a decade or so … we doubled our enrollment of multilingual learners, but we didn’t double our teachers who were certified for it,” Efflandt said in an interview with Target 12. “So we just weren’t prepared to serve them.”

Since then, “I would say we’ve made a lot of progress,” Efflandt said.

She touted a number of areas of improvement, including in identifying the multilingual learners and getting them enrolled in the program. The district sent home language surveys to thousands of students for which they previously had no data.

“We have a very detailed process and a lot of trainings that we’ve gone through with the registration office,” Efflandt said. “I’m very confident that we have home language data for every single student in the district.”

The district also stopped using the “consultation model” of teaching students — where non-ESL teachers consult with certified teachers — which the DOJ said was “educationally unsound.” Instead, the district has created more than 200 integrated classrooms, and also increased the number of bilingual and dual language classrooms, where school is taught in two languages.

But four school years since the DOJ settlement, Providence is still not in compliance, Target 12 has learned. The original deadline, set for the end of 2021, was not met.

In light of the missed deadline, the DOJ agreed to extend the agreement through the 2022-23 school year.

The department declined to comment for this report. But a series of letters sent to the city from the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division shed light on where Providence is succeeding, and where the school district still falls short.

The most recent letter, dated Oct. 8, 2021, and labeled “letter of concern,” offered a harsh rebuke of Providence’s record-keeping, and said the district has continuously missed deadlines that would allow the feds to monitor their progress.

In the letter, DOJ officials said there were already “several areas of noncompliance” during the current school year, including a lack of coaching plan for ESL teachers, which the DOJ had asked for on numerous occasions.

Providence also failed to submit its 2021 annual report to the federal government, due July 15, as required by the 2018 agreement. And even when the DOJ allowed for an extension, the report that was ultimately submitted contained incomplete spreadsheets and missing data, according to the letter.

The district then missed another reporting deadline on Oct. 1, the officials wrote.

“The District’s Multilingual Learner Department currently lacks access to fundamental data about the services being provided to its EL students,” the officials wrote. “Anecdotal information about the district’s EL services obtained from district- and school-level staff is an inadequate substitute for a robust data tracking system managed by a district-level team regularly monitoring and evaluating the district’s EL services.”

Nick Domings, a spokesperson for Providence schools, said the issues in the letter have all since been addressed. But the district has not provided copies of any of the annual reports they’ve sent to the government, which Target 12 requested via an Access to Public Records Act request on April 13.

In addition to the DOJ investigation, the school district has also faced legal action from the American Civil Liberties Union and Rhode Island Legal Services, which sued on behalf of students not being provided with services.

“Our pending lawsuit against RIDE and the school district, combined with the DOJ’s detailed concerns, highlight that English Language Learners are continuing to face serious academic harm due to the failings of these educational agencies,” said Steven Brown, the executive director of the ACLU of Rhode Island. “The time for these students to have their legal rights fully recognized and protected is long overdue.”

Thousands of students, but not enough teachers

Previous letters from the DOJ focused more broadly on the district’s progress, noting momentum in several areas including identifying English learners, communication with parents and implementing professional development for teachers, which was required in the agreement.

But still, in March 2021, the DOJ wrote that more than 34% of English learners were not receiving instruction from an ESL-certified teacher.

“As the district nears the end of the third year of the agreement … numerous issues remain unresolved,” the officials wrote. “While our agreement requires the District to recruit, hire, and employ a sufficient number of ESL-certified teachers by the start of the 2019-20 school year, our site visits and the data reveal that the district continues to have a pronounced ESL teacher shortage.”

Providence has managed to get more teachers certified in ESL, but still falls short of the requirements.

In the 2018-29 school year, according to data provided by the district, 144 teachers were fully certified in either ESL or Bilingual/Dual Language, another type of certification that allows a teacher to serve multilingual learners.

That number has increased each year, to 256 teachers fully certified — and using that certification — currently. Another 211 have either an emergency certification or an expert residency, which are both interim certificates on the way to being fully certified.

But the DOJ does not include those lesser certifications as counting towards compliance with their agreement. The R.I. Department of Education can issue the emergency certifications to teachers who have agreed to get certified, but have not actually begun taking courses yet. (The following year, in order to get the emergency certificate renewed, teachers must show that they’ve made progress, according to Efflandt.)

The expert residency certification is issued when the teacher has passed the Praxis exam, but has not completed their program yet.

Asked repeatedly how many fully certified teachers Providence needs to be in compliance, neither Efflandt nor the district spokesperson could provide a number. (The agreement doesn’t specify an exact number of teachers needed, but requires that the district have enough teachers to provide adequate services to all the multilingual learners currently enrolled.)

Efflandt said part of the issue in coming up with a precise number is that the amount of multilingual learners keeps changing. And as Providence continuously converts classrooms from sheltered instruction to integrated — like Backman’s class — they’ll need twice as many ESL-certified teachers to properly staff those classes.

Next year, Efflandt said, roughly 600 positions in the district will require an ESL certification.

The goal listed in the state-controlled school district’s turnaround plan is to have 52% of teachers certified by the 2026-27 school year, which would be more than 1,000 teachers. That deadline has already been pushed back two years, after initially being set for the end of the 2024-25 school year.

The ratio of certified teachers to multilingual learners is also uneven throughout the district, according to a Target 12 analysis of student and teacher data provided by PPSD.

At Dr. Jorge Alvarez High School, for example, 427 students — 58% of the student body — are multilingual learners. The school has six fully certified teachers, for a ratio of 71 students per one fully certified teacher. (Another 17 Alvarez teachers have emergency certifications, and three have an expert residency.)

The smallest teacher-to-student ratio is at Pleasant View Elementary, which has 54 multilingual learners. For every nine of those students at Pleasant View, there is a fully-certified ESL teacher.

One factor that is poised to help is a significantly larger tuition reimbursement for teachers to take the seven master’s-level college courses required to get the certification. The district announced in December it would increase the reimbursement to $8,000 per teacher, utilizing COVID relief funds.

Prior to that, in 2020, the district announced a $3,200 reimbursement for up to 125 teachers. But multiple teachers who spoke to Target 12 said it covered nowhere near their total costs to get the certificate, which could be up to $11,000 or more depending on the college.

While the $3,200 was designed for a program at Roger Williams University, many teachers opted for schools closer to their homes or that better fit their schedules, such as Rhode Island College, the University of Rhode Island or even online programs. Teachers who spoke to Target 12 said they spent thousands out of pocket.

And the teachers did not have much of a choice; in an effort to comply with the DOJ agreement, Providence has sent displacement notices to hundreds of teachers in the past three years, converting their jobs to positions that require an ESL certification.

If the teacher is unwilling to commit to getting the certificate, they lose their jobs and have to apply for other union positions within the district. In some cases, displaced teachers can end up as a long-term substitute.

It’s been a frustrating process, according to Providence Teachers Union Vice President Jeremy Sencer. He said rather than working with teachers from the start in 2018 to get more certifications, the district was “building the plane while it’s already airborne.”

“The teachers took on the bulk of the lift, but the teachers weren’t brought into the process as it went along,” Sencer said.

“It was sort of an ambush,” said Dan DeCesare, a 26-year veteran teacher who said he received a displacement notice in 2020. “We actually ended up getting punished, as teachers, for what the administration did.”

DeCesare opted to get the certification, which allowed him to stay in his job as a fifth-grade teacher at Anthony Carnevale. He said he was given a year and a half to complete the seven courses, which he took at RIC.

While DeCesare initially received the $3,200 reimbursement, he’s now been told he can take advantage of the new $8,000 offer.

“Certainly, teachers were grateful that the reimbursement was brought in line closer to the cost,” Sencer said. “However, the amount of time and energy is still a big lift while teaching full-time and meeting the needs of students.”

He also said the union is eager for the district to begin offering an in-house certification program, which he argued would make it easier for teachers to complete the certification. A law passed in 2021 requires the R.I. Department of Education to set up regulations to streamline the process to get certified.

“A lot of our teachers were letting us know … this is a huge burden,” Efflandt said. She said an in-house program is in the works; PPSD has applied to become an approved certification program. The goal is for the program to start in January 2023.

Domings said teachers from the 2019-20 school year onward who got the $3,200 reimbursement can now apply for the additional money to bring them up to $8,000.

So why wasn’t tuition reimbursed sooner, considering the urgency to get more teachers certified?

“I think at the time it had to do with how much funding we had available,” Efflandt said. “With ESSER funds there’s a lot of flexibility that we have now to be able to cover those.” (ESSER is the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund, federal money that has flowed into districts as part of multiple COVID relief bills passed by Congress.)

The district has budgeted $4 million to provide the $8,000 reimbursement to 500 teachers over the next three years, Domings said.

More money is key to properly serving multilingual learners, according to state Sen. Sandra Cano, the chair of the Senate Education Committee.

Cano, a Pawtucket Democrat, is a former ESL student herself, having immigrated to the United States from Colombia in high school.

“To educate English learners, it takes more money,” Cano said. “This issue is critical, and it should be top priority to address.”

Target 12 shared the DOJ letters with Cano.

“It was concerning to see that there are a lot of things that need to happen,” Cano said after reviewing the documents. “We aren’t there yet. But there is also progress that has been made.”

She pointed to a number of bills being considered at the State House, including one she introduced that would factor multilingual learners into the state’s education funding formula.

Currently, the formula factors in money for public school districts with “high-need students,” using the number of students living in poverty. At a recent hearing about the legislation, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ryan Pearson said while that category does capture many multilingual learners, it leaves out thousands of students.

“Our top priority is that all students, regardless of who they are, regardless of where they come from, need and deserve high-quality education,” Cano said.

Cano also said she’s passionate about making sure there are still high academic standards for students who are multilingual learners. She said teachers at her high school in Pawtucket 20 years ago assumed “because I didn’t know how to speak English, I wasn’t proficient in math.”

She had been enrolled in algebra back in Colombia, but as a senior in high school in Pawtucket she was being taught basic arithmetic such addition and multiplication.

“It was really disheartening, and I’ve been very outspoken about this story,” she said.

Efflandt noted that Providence still needs to improve access to advanced academics for multilingual learners, something the DOJ has also highlighted.

At Classical High School, the high-performing Providence public school that Efflandt attended, there are only 13 multilingual learners, according to PPSD’s data. It’s the lowest percentage of multilingual learners at any Providence school.

“My office is actively working on that, and working with Classical to make sure the process for the application and the test are made more accessible to our multilingual learners,” Efflandt. “It’s very personal to me. I know I benefited from those programs, and I want to make sure our MLLs have that opportunity.”

However, she said those plans do not currently include offering the Classical entrance exam in Spanish.

Also still in need of improvement is the number of students exiting out of the multilingual learner program and into general education. That is determined by the ACCESS test, the standardized assessment given to English learners.

Overall, the average scale score has not improved in Providence since the 2018 DOJ report. And while the exam is not the only way to measure success, it is how the district measures whether a student is ready to leave the program.

Only 2.2% of multilingual learners scored in the “bridging” or “reaching” categories in Providence last school year, the two highest categories. The year before, 3.5% of students achieved that score.

“What I want to see is that more of our students are exiting,” Efflandt said. “We have a lot of students who we call long-term multilingual learners, who have been receiving services for more than five years.”

Some of that can be attributed to the pandemic, Efflandt said, which was very detrimental for English learners.

“Online learning is tough for any kid, but especially multilingual learners,” Efflandt said. “We definitely saw a dip in those exit numbers.”

Steph Machado (smachado@wpri.com) is a Target 12 investigative reporter covering Providence, politics and more for 12 News. Connect with her on Twitter and on Facebook.