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State cites need for better English learner support



Recorder Staff
Monday, December 04, 2017

GREENFIELD — Nine Puerto Rican students have enrolled in Greenfield public schools since Hurricane Maria devastated their island home 10 weeks ago, and the superintendent’s office is expecting more children in the new year.

While Superintendent Jordana Harper and the school department have touted the efforts by the schools to support the needs of these students, some of whom do not speak English, this handful of students comes at a time when the department is working under the direction of the state to make sure it is satisfying the needs of Spanish-speaking students and their families.

A recent Coordinated Program Review by the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education said two-thirds of the criteria around English learner education were not fully implemented. Comparatively, the state’s review of the Gill-Montague School District during the same time frame said one-third of the criteria was not fully implemented.

The superintendent’s office noted a majority of those criteria not fully implemented were about ensuring materials to parents were readily available in Spanish, but one marker stood out. The state said “Document review and staff interviews indicated that the district does not have an ESL curriculum or a plan to develop one.”

“Greenfield definitely isn’t the only district to have a finding on their Coordinated Program Review that they did not have an ESL curriculum, but it’s still a significant finding reflecting a lack of meaningful ESL instruction,” said Jacqueline Reis, a state education spokeswoman. “It means the district has work to do in terms of serving English learners well.”

Dianne Ellis, Greenfield School Department’s director of student services, who heads the English language learner programming, said the “areas we need to continue to develop curriculum,” but both she and Harper said that this aspect of the state’s September report was not relevant to the recent Puerto Rican arrivals and did not alter the school’s ability to adequately teach these new students.

Instead, Harper and Ellis explained that the nine students who have come to the school, a majority of whom are in the elementary schools, have transitioned rather seamlessly and are receiving the proper amount of guidance required by the state so that they can get the most out of their education.

“I think people don’t realize that these children are coming into (the schools) and are really successfully being integrated into a new school environment,” Harper said.

Greenfield response

When a new student comes in, whether from Puerto Rico or anywhere, the school department provides an assessment for the child. They then use the data from that to help figure out what the student needs to best be able to access the curriculum.

Some of these students who have come in since the hurricane are receiving English language learner programming multiple hours a day, in part under the guidance of the department’s recently hired Spanish tutor.

The decision to hire the tutor came before the hurricane and was a response to the growing overall shift in demographics in the Greenfield schools. As of late November, the Greenfield School Department had 6 percent English Language Learners, which accounts for about 110 students. Roughly half of them are from Spanish-speaking families.

“That has been a shift because historically in Greenfield we’ve had higher representation of Romanian and Russian students,” Ellis said. “Over the last couple years, there’s been a demographic shift.”

Harper and Ellis repeatedly said in a joint interview that the school has been prepared for this handful of new students, especially with the new tutor they hired this year.

“If we hadn’t made that early fall adjustment I think we would be scrambling,” Harper said. “But we were well poised to respond to this.”

How this will influence the finances of the School Committee is up for further examination, but at the moment, things are at a status quo.

“If we had 30 students tomorrow, I don’t think it’d be possible to accommodate them with the current staffing we have, but what we’ve seen so far has been gradual,” Harper said.

They are expecting more children to come from families who have been influenced by the hurricane, based on word of mouth from the current families that have come in. At recent regional superintendent meetings that Harper has attended, she learned many districts are preparing for an influx of students.

If that does happen, they will have to go before the School Committee and discuss the potential need for more money.

Mayor William Martin, the chairman of the committee, said they will cross that bridge if and when they get there. For now, he said, he hasn’t heard anything from the superintendent’s office about the need for more money in the near future.

“I think we’ve been ahead of the curve and continue to strive to be cutting edge in this area, and we will be soon,” Harper said.

Statewide alert

An analysis by Massachusetts Parents United, an urban parent advocacy organization, said if more funds aren’t available to help new Puerto Rican students, there could be serious ramifications. A press release from the advocacy group in November stated, “the influx of 1,000 recent Puerto Rican evacuees into Massachusetts schools will exacerbate educational challenges without immediate assistance from the Legislature.”

The Director of Economic and Public Policy at the University of Massachusetts Donahue Institute, Mark Melnik, added in the same press release, “Puerto Ricans in Massachusetts face considerable economic and social challenges, including lower levels of educational attainment and high rates of poverty.”

You can reach
Joshua Solomon at:

jsolomon@recorder.com

413-772-0261, ext. 264