Sánchez takes a chip off the Unz Initiative

March 5, 2010
By

David Taber

BPS seeking big changes for English learners

A little-noticed amendment put forward by Jamaica Plain state Rep. Jeffrey Sánchez in a recent state education reform package could exempt some schools from the effects of the 2002 Unz Initiative, the Gazette has learned.

The new law could radically change education for English language learners (ELLs) in Boston.

Meanwhile, another Jamaica Plain resident, Hyde Square Task Force head and Boston School Committee member Claudio Martinez, is co-chairing an ELL Task Force.

The task force is looking at revamping how ELL students and their families are served by BPS.

But, Martinez told the Gazette, it also looking at a bigger picture. “I want to emphasize that the charge of the task force is much larger than improving conditions for ELLs,” he said. The group is looking at strategies to transform Boston Public Schools (BPS) into a “multi-lingual, multi-ethnic system,” he said.

BPS is also currently operating its ELL programming with multiple influences from the federal government. Last summer the US Department of Justice (DOJ) launched an inquiry into whether BPS is providing adequate support for ELL students. And the school system is scheduled to receive close to $18 million in American Relief and Recovery Act (ARRA) money and other federal funding over the next two years to do just that.

State rules

The new state ELL rules are part of a larger initiative to increase flexibility and accountability to close the achievement gap at underperforming schools across Massachusetts. BPS has identified 14 schools citywide, including two in JP that it hopes to reorganize under the new state rules.

Sanchez’s amendment empowers school districts, in creating “turnaround” plans for those schools, to ignore a 2002 law—the voter referendum-passed Unz Initiative—that severely restricts the teaching of non-native speakers in their own languages. The Unz Initiative was named after California millionaire Ron Unz, who promoted the referendum item in a number of states around the country.

Sánchez won his seat the same year Unz initiative passed. In that campaign and since then, overturning the initiative has been a priorty for him, he said. That year, Jamaica Plain helped elect Sánchez and opposed Unz, both by about a 70 percent margin.

Close to half of Boston Public Schools (BPS) ELL students—6,200 out of 11,800, according to BPS numbers—attend 14 schools that have been identified by BPS as turnaround schools. Those schools include English High School and the Kennedy Elementary School in JP. The most recent figures available on the BPS web site—from the 2008-2009 school year—indicate that about 150 of English’s approximately 754 students are in ELL programs and about 90 of the Kennedy’s 373 students are in ELL programs.

On March 4 the state announced that 12 BPS schools were designated as “level 4″ underperforming schools, qualifying them for turnaround programs under the new state law. The state list includes many of the same schools BPS identified in its tunraround list, including English High and the Kennedy. The state list also includes JP’s Louis Aggasiz Elementary School, where about 112 of the 562 students were in ELL programs last year.

The 11,800 students taking advantage of BPS’s ELL programs citywide constitute fewer than half of the about 24,000 non-native speakers in BPS.

Another JP school, the Hernandez, is a two-way bilingual school that teaches students half in English and half in Spanish. Two-way bilingual schools were specifically exempted from the law-change that resulted from Unz Initiative after some wrangling among lawmakers that included the legislature overriding a veto by then-Gov. Mitt Romney, Sánchez said.

Sánchez told the Gazette he voted for the recent education reform bill contingent on the inclusion of the amendment. “I wasn’t going to vote for the original achievement gap bill,” he said, saying he “had not been a fan” of provisions in the bill to raise statewide caps on the number of charter schools that can be created.

But, “Boston has such a high concentration of (ELL) students and so many kids have been outside of the system for so long,” he said.

The amendment is “a very powerful tool,” Eileen de los Reyes, BPS assistant superintendent for English Language Learners told the Gazette.

After it passed, Unz Initiative essentially outlawed bilingual education in Massachusetts schools, officially limiting ELL students to one year of instruction in “sheltered English immersion” (SEI) classrooms—aimed at teaching students basic English language skills as quickly as possible—before they are supposed to be “mainstreamed” into regular classes.

The Gazette previously reported that there have been major problems with the implementation of the law in BPS, including that, instead of being transitioned, some students have languished for multiple years in what some teachers have described as “segregated” classes.

Another issue—one that the ELL Task Force is taking steps to deal with—is that many students who would qualify for services as ELL students are opting not to take advantage of the limited support programming available.

De los Reyes told the Gazette that increased flexibility for teaching ELL students will allow the school system to move away from a “one size fits all” model for teaching ELL students. “Some schools have more recent arrivals than others,” she said.

Sánchez’s ELL amendment could turn underperforming schools into schools that ELL students flock to for unique bilingual education programming, de los Reyes said. “It’s an opportunity to promote innovation,” she said.

Sánchez said he has been refilling a bill to overturn the Unz Initiative for years. That bill has not gone anywhere in part because many state lawmakers fear an anti-immigrant backlash, he said.

“It’s a campaign issue for a lot of people,” similar to a long-stalled proposal to extend in-state tuition at state colleges to undocumented immigrants, he said. Legislative leaders have said that proposal is not likely to move during the current legislative session because it is an election year.

ELL Task Force

Sánchez was quick to credit BPS for recent moves to improve ELL education. BPS Superintendent Carol Johnson “is stepping up to the plate,” he said. In particular, he said, she has made an effort to bring ELL advocates into the fold.

De los Reyes, who, prior to joining BPS, worked as a research associate for the Research Associate at the Mauricio Gaston Institute for Latino Public Policy at UMass Boston is one such advocate.

Another is Claudio Martinez who, now in his second year on the BPS School Committee, is co-chairing the school committee’s new ELL Task Force.

That group, made up of advocates, educators and students from across Boston, began meeting in November, and has seen some swift results, Martinez told the Gazette.

Johnson and other BPS senior officials often attend the task force’s monthly meetings, and “changes are happening before we have the time to make formal recommendations,” Martinez said.

At least one recommendation—that BPS extend its enrollment period to give ELL students and parents more time to learn about the programs available to them—happened without a formal request from the task force, he said.

It did manage to pound out a related recommendation in December, though—a suggestion from the task force’s Martinez-chaired operations and systems subcommittee. That recommendation advised that, “BPS should undertake immediately an internal and external public information campaign to inform parents and students of their rights to an SEI program seat with a qualified teacher.”

The task force’s other subcommittee—the program, curriculum and instruction committee—is chaired by task force co-chair Klare Shaw.

De los Reyes said BPS is embracing those formal and informal recommendations. Regarding extending the enrollment period, “we did that very quickly” she said. Regarding educating families about their choices for ELL programming she said: “There is a lot of confusion and there are a lot of questions we can answer.”

BPS’s annual budget for ELL programming is about $35 million a year. Over the next two years it will receive about $4 million in ARRA funding to support its programming, and also another $10 million that it can use to target specific programs on the fly, she said.

“After students have completed their choice forms, we can see families’ needs and target additional funding,” she said.

Martinez said the additional funding is key to accomplishing the work the task force is setting out to do. It “shows that we are not just talking,” he said.

De los Reyes said the formation of the task force was in part a response to the ongoing DOJ inquiry. “Also, this superintendent has created the space to tackle the issue of ELLs in the district,” she said.

The BPS communications department declined to comment further on the inquiry beyond saying conversations with the DOJ are ongoing.

Gazette calls to the DOJ were not returned by press time.

Both Martinez and De los Reyes said their ultimate goal is to move beyond conversations about ELL students. “Our hope for the district is that all children have the opportunity to become bilingual,” De los Reyes said. “The turnaround schools could end up offering a new vision for all children.”

The task force will eventually look at “cross-functional, interdisciplinary changes to the whole system,” Martinez said. “Living in a global society, not knowing a second language will limit [students’] opportunities in the next generation, if not now.”

While he was hesitant to comment on the implications of Sánchez’s amendment, Martinez had choice words for the Unz Initiative, which he actively opposed in 2002. It was “the most xenophobic, stupid law this Commonwealth has passed in a long time,” he said. “It left a huge empty space for communities of English language learners that really does not serve anyone well.”

The ELL Task Force’s regular monthly meetings are open to the public. BPS spokesperson Matt Wilder said BPS plans to start posting the meeting schedule on its calendar at www.bostonpublicschools.org. BPS plans to host community meetings regarding proposed turnaround plans for English High,and the Kennedy and Agassiz elementary schools, but has not yet scheduled those meetings.

THe web version of this story was updated to include information about underperforming schools released by the state after the Gazette’s print deadline