Federal

Boston Settles With Federal Officials in ELL Investigation

By Mary Ann Zehr — October 12, 2010 5 min read

The U.S. departments of Justice and Education reached a settlement agreement this month on how the Boston public school system will fix violations of the civil rights of English-language learners.

Since 2003, the Boston district “has failed to properly identify and adequately serve thousands of English Language Learner (ELL) students as required by the Equal Educational Opportunities Act of 1974 and Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964,” the Justice Department said in a press release issued Oct. 1. The school district cooperated with a joint investigation by the two federal departments into those violations.

The 44-page agreement requires that, starting this school year, all of Boston’s 135 schools provide services to English-language learners, even if the schools don’t have large numbers of such students, something that wasn’t happening before. It also includes a mandate that the district offer “compensatory services” to students who previously had been deemed as “opting out” of language services that they were entitled to receive under federal law. The district also must offer programs and services during out-of-school hours—including after school, during summer, and on Saturdays—to make up for the ELL help that students should have gotten but didn’t.

The Boston settlement agreement is the result of one of 15 investigations into ELL programs at school districts that the Justice Department has opened since President Barack Obama took office in January 2009.

One way that the federal agencies have found the Boston district to be in violation of federal law is that it inappropriately categorized many students as having “opted out” of language support.

Training and Retesting

Carol Johnson, the schools superintendent in Boston, where 28 percent of the district’s 56,000 students are ELLs, said in an interview that the system has been trying for a year to bring its schools into compliance with federal civil rights law. The effort has involved training some 2,000 teachers in how to work with English-learners, retesting the English skills of 7,000 students, and mapping plans to accelerate the learning of ELLs who should have received services before but didn’t.

“We had to be fairly aggressive in our planning. We looked school by school at who was being served and who wasn’t,” Ms. Johnson said.

The district has agreed to spend $10 million on improving ELL services, an expenditure that began last school year and will continue this school year. About $8.2 million of that money is being supplied by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the 2009 federal economic-stimulus legislation.

Roger L. Rice, the executive director of Multicultural Education, Training, and Advocacy of Somerville, Mass., praised the agreement as “comprehensive,” compared with other settlement agreements on ELL services that have had the stamp of the Justice Department.

But he said he wasn’t satisfied with the extent of the compensatory services required of the district. Those services should be provided during the regular school day, he said, because many ELLs are obligated to get jobs or babysit to help support their families, which competes with their ability to make up lessons during out-of-school hours.

In addition, he said, it seems that the compensatory services “are not instructionally linked to what goes on during the school year.”

But Eileen De Los Reyes, Boston’s assistant superintendent for English-language learners, said that ELLs have already responded well to the district’s offerings on Saturdays and during the summer. “What I would not want to do is disrupt their day more,” she said. “They need to participate in the life of the school.”

She also stressed that the students eligible for the makeup services are already getting ELL services and academic-content classes tailored to their needs during the school day. The makeup services are also connected with what ELLs learn during the school day because the district provides the materials and teachers for them, she added.

The agreement doesn’t give a number for how many students are eligible for the makeup services. But Ms. De Los Reyes said 4,000 students who were found to be inappropriately categorized as having opted out of services are eligible, as well as 4,300 students who hadn’t been properly identified as ELLs because of testing issues.

Another important area of the agreement refers to the quality of services given to students at the secondary school level, which Mr. Rice describes as having been “horrible” in the past.

Spelling It Out

The agreement requires that ELLs be taught core academic content by teachers who use “sheltered-content instructional techniques,” or teaching methods tailored for such students. Examples of approaches “to make lessons understandable” for ELLs include grouping students by language-proficiency level, adapting materials and texts, providing visuals, giving native-language support or clarification, and facilitating students’ ability to work cooperatively, the agreement says. In addition, the agreement specifies that those sheltered classes be taught by either certified English-as-a-second-language teachers or teachers who have received a minimum level of training in ELL strategies, which Ms. De Los Reyes said is 70 hours.

The agreement says that, by December, all core-content instruction should be provided by teachers certified in the content area and adequately trained to work with ELLs.

The federal scrutiny isn’t the only effort highlighting problems with services to ELLs in Boston’s schools. In 2008, a state review of the school system’s ELL programs said educators told parents to opt out if programs were full or if they chose to send their children to schools that didn’t have ELL programs. A report last year by the Mauricio Gastón Institute for Latino Community Development and Public Policy, at the University of Massachusetts Boston, found the district wasn’t properly assessing and identifying many students as ELLs.

In May 2009, the district hired Ms. De Los Reyes and tasked her with addressing the lack of services to ELLs cited in the 2008 state review. She said the settlement resulted from a strong collaboration with the Justice and Education departments.

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A version of this article appeared in the October 13, 2010 edition of Education Week as Boston Settles With Federal Officials in ELL Investigation

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