Sánchez vs. Unz

David Taber

Local state rep. seeks language education reform

As the new school year begins, over 6,000 students in Boston Public Schools (BPS) will, in addition to the standard academic responsibilities, be working to master the English language.

The challenge is daunting under any circumstances, but state Rep. Jeffrey Sánchez of JP believes the Commonwealth’s system for educating English Language Learning (ELL) students is fundamentally flawed, and he wants to see it changed.

Since the passage of the Unz Initiative by popular referendum in 2002, ELL students have, by law, been given one year to master their second language, in what are known as “Sheltered English” classrooms, before transitioning into mainstream education programs.

Berta Berriz is a JP resident who has taught for 27 years and currently teaches fifth-grade ELL students in a Sheltered English classroom at the Charles Sumner School in Roslindale. Under the Unz law she is allowed to communicate with students in their native language to clarify information, but must teach in English, she said.

While the law calls for students to be transitioned into mainstream classrooms after a year, most of her students have spent multiple school years, some as many as four, in what Berriz described as “segregated” classrooms.

“Children do not go out to lunch together. They don’t do music, computer or physical education classes together. They have lost the resource of using native speakers to learn English,” she said.

But, she said, “Sometimes the kids stay in the classrooms because the teachers feel they can handle the kids better.”

In 2006, the Boston Globe reported that many schools across the city are failing to transition ELL students into mainstream classrooms after a year.

The problem, Berriz said, is a lack of district-wide oversight. “Principals need to be held accountable,” she said.

The Globe article reported that 6 percent of ELL students passed the Massachusetts English Proficiency Assessment test after a year in school.

Statewide, a report issued June of this year from the Boston-based Rennie Center for Education Research and Policy, analyzing the results of the Massachusetts English Proficiency Assessment (MEPA), showed that only about 17 percent of ELL students are prepared for transition after one year, and a little more than 50 percent are ready after five years.

“We had no hard data until the report came out, which told us what we already knew-—immersion is not working for ELLs,” Sánchez said.

In the wake of the report, Sánchez, along with state Sen. Cynthia Stone Creem, drafted an ELL reform bill. The Sánchez-Creem Bill is intended to give school districts more flexibility in designing programs. It offers districts the opportunity to choose the best programs for their needs and requires districts with more than 50 ELLs from the same language group to offer at least two different programs to accommodate different learning styles.

The current law is “one-size-fits-all,” Sánchez said. “Language, background and income do not matter.”

And, according to Sánchez, the one-size-fits-all model is particularly unsuited for the task of teaching ELL students because of the diversity of foreign-language-speaking students’ experiences. “These are kids coming from the Sudan, Somalia, Albania and China as well as Latin America. They have different age ranges, different experiences. A lot of these kids have never seen a classroom in their lives,” Sánchez said.

The bill would allow students to remain in ELL programs for up to three years. It also provides for increased state oversight of ELL programs, requiring districts to devise and submit three-year plans, and track and make public any information about the progress of their ELL students and the success of their programs.

Additionally, it calls for the reinstatement of Parent Advisory Councils (PACs) to work with districts in creating the three-year plans.

PACs were a hallmark of ELL education prior to their abolition under the Weld Administration. The dismantling of the councils led to a “vacuum, because we don’t have a format for feedback from parents of ELL students,” said Caprice Taylor Mendez, director of the JP based Boston Parent Organizing Network, which advocates for parent involvement in Boston Public Schools.

Public support

The 2002 battle over the Unz initiative, which was initiated and financed by California-based millionaire Ron Unz, generated fierce opposition at the time of its passage. When Sánchez held a public hearing for his reform bill in June, he recently told the Gazette, he had hoped to tap into that same energy but was disappointed by the results.

“In 2001 it consumed so much of people’s time that I thought it would get more attention,” Sánchez said.

The state rep’s outreach strategy may have been one problem, said Taylor Mendez. She herself only heard about the June hearing a week before it happened, through a third party, she said.

And there seems to be a “disconnect with community groups,” she said. “Of the folks he [Sánchez] had testify that day, very few were Boston-based.”

While she said she agrees with much of what Sánchez’s bill offers, including increased accountability and flexibility and “improved assessment and placement standards,” she is concerned that the bill does not deal more with funding.

Sánchez said that Federal Title I funding provides the lion’s share of ELL funding for school districts, but Taylor Mendez pointed out there are a number of costs associated with PACs and with teacher training for which adequate funds have never been provided.

Translators, for example, are essential for the PACs to work, she said, and right now it is a challenge for teachers to even communicate with non-English speaking parents on a one-on-one basis.

Responding to teacher requests, BPON has been able to provide volunteer translators through some of its member groups, Taylor Mendez said, but BPS should have the resources to coordinate these services.

“This has to be addressed in a formal way,” she said.

Funding for teacher training is also lacking, Taylor Mendez said. “Every classroom in BPS has an ELL student. There needs to be greater investment in professional development.”

BPON has not taken a position on the Sánchez-Creem bill, but the organization is planning a forum in late October and a conference in November to discuss and develop strategies around ELL reform. Taylor Mendez said they would invite Sánchez to attend.

“Hopefully, moving forward, we can work more closely with or state allies,” Taylor Mendez said.

For his part, Sánchez said he is hoping reform advocates and concerned citizens will get behind his bill. A number of key legislators have declared support, he said, but, “now it’s a matter of trying to build up some support in the community and the State House itself.”

If people support his bill, Sánchez asked that they let their representatives know. “Call your representatives. Call the governor’s office and explain that the current immersion system doesn’t work, that we knew it wasn’t going to work and we need accountability for the resources being spent and the quality of education these kids are receiving,” he said.

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