Superintendents’ Consortium Dedicates Itself To L.E.P. Students

By Peter Schmidt — March 11, 1992 7 min read

Among other successes, council members have secured federal funding for an L.E.P. program in Rhode Island, and have established new training programs in Massachusetts.

He is not pushing a product, but an idea: concern for the special needs of language-minority students.

And the market he is asking his audience to reach consists of the mainstream teachers and principals who handle--and sometimes mishandle--limited-English-proficient students every day.

“These are the folks we have to convince that they have as much responsibility and ownership for every one of those L.E.P. kids as the people who are staffing our bilingual offices,” Mr. Connelly says.

“These are the people,” he adds, “who are going to have to be convinced that they have to change their ways of dealing with young people if, indeed, they are going to be successful.”

He glances around the room full of people intently watching him, and then at the video camera that captures his speech for broader consumption.

“That’s a tremendous task--to change people,” Mr. Connelly says. “But I think that’s the task we have to do.”

If it were not for the credentials possessed by Mr. Connelly and the group he was addressing, the message they planned to deliver might have been easy for the principals and teachers to ignore.

But Mr. Connelly is the superintendent of schools in Bridgeport, Conn., and he was speaking that day to superintendents of other school districts throughout New England.

They belong to the New England Superintendents’ Leadership Council, an unusual regional consortium of about 100 school-district chief executive officers dedicated to improving the education of language-minority pupils.

As superintendents, they have control over jobs, funds, and the operation of various programs, Mr. Connelly, the council’s co-chairman, notes. They also have the “ability to pull together resources as only a superintendent could,’' he says.

Like mice befriended by a lion, the often-meek L.E.P. children in their schools now are hearing their concerns voiced with a roar. And, thanks to the success the New England group has shown, superintendents in at least one other region of the country are thinking of forming similar organizations.

Out of the ‘Pigeonholes’

Adeline Becker, the director of the New England Multifunctional Resource Center for Language and Culture in Education at Brown University, says her center organized the superintendents’ consortium in 1989 after it realized that improving education for L.E.P. students would require much more than training teachers in the region.

“To truly effect change,” Ms. Becker says, “you really need individuals in leadership positions to understand the issues surrounding language-minority education.’'

By becoming involved with the leadership council, “the superintendents have taken ownership of these issues and this population,” Ms. Becker says, noting that many now are “loathe” to cut funding for L.E.P. programs, even when faced with tight budgets.

Before being exposed to the council, most of the school superintendents involved tended to “pigeonhole” all issues affecting limited-English-proficient children as strictly the concern of their districts’ bilingual-education specialists, Mr. Connelly says.

When the resource center first began holding training institutes for superintendents, Ms. Becker says, it became clear that some of the superintendents who attended did not even know what language minorities were enrolled in their district’s schools.

“Many did not know what the numbers were in their school districts, or what difficulties these students might be facing,” Ms. Becker says.

Moreover, says J. Brian Smith, the superintendent of schools for Maine Indian Education in Calais, superintendents tend to “live at the mercy of the Immigration and Naturalization Service,” and have been ill-prepared to deal with new influxes of students from diverse language groups.

“If you begin to look at the statistics, this is a very, very complex problem,” says Mr. Smith, noting that the 6 percent of Maine students who are limited-English proficient come from 72 different language groups, including several Native American tribes.

Sharing Information

Ms. Becker describes the council as “a grassroots movement” consisting of “superintendents addressing their local needs, their statewide needs, their regional needs, and their national needs, probably in that order.”

The council holds summer institutes on educational and advocacy issues related to language-minority students, runs a clearinghouse at Brown University to distribute relevant information, and publishes a quarterly newsletter highlighting promising practices in the field.

The council also lobbies at the federal level, and conducts state meetings at least twice a year to address issues specific to its member states--Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Vermont.

But the council’s most important function, many members say, may be as a mechanism for allowing superintendents to gather informally and talk, in a positive and non-threatening manner, about their concerns in dealing with language minorities.

With 2,500 L.E.P. students among Bridgeport’s total enrollment of 20,200, Mr. Connelly says, he is looking for ways to swap information with his counterparts in districts dealing with similar situations.

“Generally speaking, when superintendents confront the issue of bilingual youngsters not receiving appropriate instruction, it may be through a court order or a group of citizens demanding services for their kids,” says Peter J. Negroni, the superintendent of the Springfield (Mass.) Public Schools and a member of the council’s advisory board.

“Our perspective is not, ‘You are doing something wrong, and you should be doing it right,’” Mr. Negroni says. “Our perspective is, ‘We are sharing information about mechanisms to appropriately educate youngsters who are limited-English proficient.’”

“Superintendents listen to other superintendents,” he notes.

The council has proved particularly valuable, Mr. Negroni points out, to superintendents who are encountering language minorities for the first time, and could use guidance from those with more experience.

“Everybody, no matter where they are now, are beginning to get a few” L.E.P. students, Mr. Negroni says. “It is not something that just affects the urban centers.”

Through the council’s summer institutes, its members say, districts in New Hampshire, Vermont, and Maine, which have experienced new influxes of language minorities, have benefitted from the experiences of districts in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Connecticut, which absorbed similar influxes years ago.

Speaking With a ‘Powerful Voice’

Ms. Becker says the superintendents collectively “speak with a very powerful voice’’ on language-minority issues. And that voice appears to be heard in Washington, D.C.

Rita Esquivel, the director of the U.S. Education Department’s office of bilingual education and minority-languages affairs, has kept in close contact with the council and has referred to it as a model for bringing about needed changes at the local level. Ms. Becker says that the New England Multifunctional Resource Center received a $77,000 grant from OBEMLA this year to help keep the council going.

The council has also lobbied the Congress on refugee assistance and other issues, with mixed success.

At the state level, council members in Connecticut have played an instrumental role in developing certification requirements for teachers of language minorities, and in having L.E.P. students exempted from taking some standardized tests that advocates say impact them unfairly.

Paul S. Danyow, the superintendent of the Burlington (Vt.) Public Schools, says council members in that state have worked to bring businesses, social-service agencies, and educators together to help smooth the transition of immigrants and refugees to life in their communities.

Among other successes, council members have secured federal funding for an L.E.P. program in Rhode Island, and have established new training programs in Massachusetts.

Since its establishment, the council has inspired the creation of a similar organization for superintendents in Texas.

And Huong-Mai Tran, the director of the Multifunctional Resource Center for mid-Atlantic states, says representatives from eight states in that region plan to meet March 26 to discuss forming a group of their own.

A version of this article appeared in the March 11, 1992 edition of Education Week as Superintendents’ Consortium Dedicates Itself To L.E.P. Students