Editorial: Greenfield school system still has work to do to meet needs of English learners

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Even Greenfield felt a bit of a breeze after Hurricane Maria blew through Puerto Rico 12 weeks ago, devastating the island and disrupting life there. After the storm, nine youngsters, some of whom don’t speak English, moved in with local relatives and entered Greenfield public schools. The superintendent is expecting more children in the new year.

So far, it seems the school department has been able to accommodate the new English language learners, which was nice to hear, because the island’s residents by all accounts need as much help as their fellow U.S. citizens can offer.

Superintendent Jordana Harper says the students, a majority of whom are in the elementary schools, have transitioned rather seamlessly this fall and are receiving the proper amount of guidance required by the state so they can get the most out of their education.

Some of these students are receiving English language learning several hours a day, in part under the guidance of the department’s recently hired Spanish tutor. Other times they attend regular classes, although educators try to pair them up with bilingual students.

The presence of a Spanish tutor is fortuitous, as the decision was made before the hurricane, as 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 over the past couple of years because in past decades Greenfield has seen higher representation of Romanian and Russian speaking students.

“If we hadn’t made that early fall adjustment, I think we would be scrambling,” Harper told the Recorder. But she cautioned that if 30 more students arrived tomorrow, it might not be possible to accommodate them with the current staffing.

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

So, Greenfield’s public schools have managed to meet the needs of the newest English language learners seeking refuge from the storm’s after-effects, and that’s good news and to the town’s credit.

At the same time, though, state education officials have noted that Greenfield isn’t doing all it can to support the needs of Spanish-speaking students, their families and other English learners. A recent Coordinated Program Review by the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education said Greenfield hasn’t fully implemented two-thirds of the state criteria around English learner education.

The superintendent’s office says a majority of those criteria not fully implemented were about ensuring materials to parents were readily available in Spanish, but one failing stands out as more serious: the state said the district does not have an overall ESL curriculum or a plan to develop one.

State officials conceded that Greenfield definitely isn’t the only district without 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 curriculum critique did not alter the school’s ability to adequately teach its new Puerto Rican students.

That may be true, but it feels like Greenfield got lucky, having just hired a Spanish tutor for students in the classroom before Hurricane Maria. We’d encourage Harper and Ellis to take credit for anticipating the current need with a timely hire, but also encourage them to find time to work out the long-term ESL curriculum, which will allow the school department to stay ahead of future demands of other new arrivals to Greenfield.