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State grapples with lack of resources for English language learners

Letter from Mayor Jorge Elorza requests doubling ELL funding from $2.5 million to $5 million

Patricia Santos has been a substitute elementary school teacher in East Providence for two years. Born in Portugal, Santos is fluent in both English and Portuguese and also speaks some Spanish — a multilingual skillset that comes in handy in the classroom. 

“If they know at least one foreign language, … (teachers) will be able to serve better,” she added. But teachers like Santos are in short supply. As a result, Santos has often been called upon by colleagues to help translate in the classroom. She has also observed that teachers turn to teaching assistants with relevant language fluency for help.

To date, English Language Learners constitute almost one third of students in Providence, according to a letter Mayor Jorge Elorza addressed to R.I. House Finance Committee Chairman Marvin Abney April 5. The letter stressed that Providence Public Schools are not adequately funded to support their ELL students. “While our state made an historic investment in workforce development for ELL students in the FY 2018 budget,” the letter read, “Providence alone spends $18 million educating these students.” The letter asked for “an increase in English Language Learners Funding from $2.5 (million) to $5 (million) in the Governor’s FY 2019 Budget for the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.”

Elorza’s letter further emphasized that ELL students represent the largest growing population within the Rhode Island education system, and this growth rate is highest in Providence. “Between fiscal years 2012 and 2016, our ELL student population grew by 39 percent and more than one quarter of our student body in 2016 was comprised of ELL students,” Elorza wrote.

Who are English Language Learners?

This funding disparity affects some demographics of Rhode Islanders more directly than others. ELL students in Rhode Island predominantly identify as Latino, according to Providence Public School District Superintendent Christopher Maher. While “Latino does not mean English Language Learner, … most of our English Language Learners are Latinos,” Maher said.

“In Providence, it’s mostly families from the Dominican Republic, Guatemala and other places — significant Colombian and Puerto Rican population as well; in Providence, we have 54 different languages spoken,” Maher said. But ELL students are not necessarily immigrants, as “40 percent of the English Language Learners in Providence were born in the United States,” he added.

Some eligible students decide not to use ELL programming because they are often mistaken for immigrants if they do, Maher said. “Why? First of all, it’s a stigma, in many cases. Second of all, there’s fear, because (families) in an ELL classroom (are) concerned about disproportionately being targeted for deportation.”

“There’s a huge fear in many of our families and in our community about that possibility,” he added.

On the other hand, misconceptions also exist about the specific identified needs of ELL students.

While efforts to aid ELL students center on providing additional resources — such as “adding more teachers that have language certification or specific material supplies” — what they might really need is structural changes in the educational system, said Jason Becker, formerly a Brown lecturer in education and fellow at the Annenberg Institute for School Reform. ELL students might benefit from “lowering the ratio of students to guidance counselors” or decreasing class sizes.

Teacher shortage

One resource shortage stands out: Not nearly enough teachers are ELL-certified in the state.“The population has changed, and we haven’t shifted to meet the needs of that population,” Maher said.

The lack of ELL-certified teachers may be due to the inaccessibility of certification, which is expensive and time-consuming, Maher said.

Previously, teachers could earn an ELL certification after taking some courses, said Providence Teachers Union President Maribeth Calabro. But the Rhode Island Department of Education discontinued this system, which “decreased the pool of teachers that could be tapped to teach those students,” she added.

“My average teacher is a 20-year veteran in Providence, they’re 47 years old, (and) when you’re at that point in your life, you’ve probably got a family that you’re raising in most cases, and a house and a mortgage. … And we’re saying, ‘Hey, go back and get this degree, get this certificate, which is expensive and time-consuming,’  … to the point that I think that a lot of people think, ‘I just can’t do it,’” Maher said.

However, this training and certification are imperative for effectively educating ELL students.

The lack of adequate funds for ELL-teacher certification is one consequence of an overall issue of insufficient resources dedicated to ELL students. This has been a problem for nearly a decade preceding the mayor’s letter this year, since the creation of the Rhode Island school funding formula in 2010.

Rhode Island’s school funding formula

The formula allocates differing levels of state funding to school districts within Rhode Island. It is weighted for poverty, so that more money is allocated to districts determined to have more students “eligible for the free and reduced-price school lunch program,” according to a Center for American Progress report written by Kenneth Wong, chair of education for Brown.

ELL students were never included directly in this formula, even though there is “a lot of evidence that students in poverty, students with disabilities and English Language Learners” require more money to be educated “at an adequate level,” Maher said.

The report cites another reason for not including ELL students in the formula as “avoid(ing) the perverse incentive of overidentification and (creating) the positive incentive for local schools to integrate these students in their mainstream instructional system.” Maher called the idea that school districts would overcount for financial gain “preposterous.”

Becker was part of the governor’s committee in 2010 for creating the formula. Becker explained that another reason ELL students were not included was that the four districts with significant proportions of English Language Learners — Pawtucket, Woonsocket, Central Falls and Providence — also had high numbers of students requiring free or reduced lunch.

The committee decided not to weight ELL students in the formula since it estimated that funds allocated to address poverty could also address the needs of ELL students. In addition, the committee was limited in the funds it could disperse. If it were to weight ELL students and fund them at the highest rate possible, districts would receive all the allocated funds only after a period of seven years.

The committee did not want to include any unnecessary additional weighted factors in the formula since they wanted to keep it “as simple as possible” when building it from scratch, Becker said.

However, Becker imagined that eventually, the General Assembly would amend the formula to include ELL students once the state could fund districts at a rate that would positively impact the learning of ELL students.

So far, this has not happened. Instead, Gov. Gina Raimondo made a separate lump sum of “categorical funding” into a permanent source of funding for ELL students last year. Categorical funding is “state aid intended to provide financial support for specific educational programs, operational functions or financial activities,” according to a report from the Editorial Projects in Education.

When ELL categorical funding was first introduced, it had to be renewed annually, Becker said. However, “Raimondo took an important step — with the support of the General Assembly — by making the (ELL) categorical funding permanent last year,” wrote Communications Officer Meg Geoghegan in an email to The Herald. “The governor and the legislature recognized that we must be equipped to serve and support these students.”

However, categorical funding has certain disadvantages compared to funding through the formula, as it comes with stringent limitations on how it can be spent. For instance, it might be harder to use categorical funding for broader changes such as decreasing class sizes because these reforms do not specifically target ELL students, Becker said.

“I think of it as a really crappy way to fund ELL students; it should have been in the formula,” Becker added. Despite the fact that the ELL categorical fund is now a permanent fund, the amount of money allocated to ELL programming each year is variable and is decided by the General Assembly.

Having to redetermine the amount of money provided by the categorical fund creates and exacerbates political divisions between districts, Becker added.

In addition, urban and suburban districts often have different funding priorities, said State Rep. Gregg Amore, D-Providence. This often means that there hasn’t been a unified push for adequate funding for ELL students.

A suburban district would be far more concerned with having transportation costs weighted in the formula than the inclusion of ELL students, Amore added. On the other hand, urban districts see ELL students as a higher funding priority.

A representative of an urban district and a former teacher, Amore agreed with Becker. “I would much prefer to see ELL begin to be baked into the overall funding formula,” he said.

But Wong, another former member of the funding formula committee, pointed out one advantage of categorical funding: the greater constraints on what is funded facilitate tracing money directly to impact and identify which methods and practices actually help ELL students.

“The district needs to prove that they are using the resources effectively to support learning,” which acts as an accountability measure, Wong said.

But “There’s a feeling among many of my colleagues that the funding formula needs to be opened up next year,” including for discussion of ELL funding, Amore said.

“As goes Providence, so goes the state; if we can’t right the ship in Providence public education, we’re going to have a problem going forward for decades to come,” he added.

State efforts

Two bills, H7436 in the House and S2506 in the Senate, were introduced in February and March, respectively, this year. They stipulate the establishment of an annual fund for a statewide dual language program of $200,000 per year. The bills recognize an overwhelming demand for dual language education, which is especially pronounced in Providence.

Dual language refers to “a method of instruction that promotes a student’s full proficiency in all aspects of English and another language,” according to the bills.

“Several of the (school) districts already have dual language in their area, but there’s no coordination of effort,” added State Sen. Frank Ciccone III, D-Providence, the Senate bill’s co-sponsor.

“We’ve tripled the number of dual language programs in Providence in the last three years, and we still have huge waitlists,” Maher said.

These bills are not exclusively focused on aiding ELL students, but a number of ELL students attend dual language schools. 

At Leviton Dual Language School, for instance, ELL students account for approximately 50 percent of the students, said Principal Javier Montanez.

The bills “would prioritize funding for districts’ dual language programs that serve a large number of English learners, because we know from many years of research that dual language programs are really the only programs for English learners that will close the achievement gap,” Erin Papa, former president of the R.I. Foreign Language Association, told The Herald. The bills note that “the expansion of funding for (dual language) programs that advance outcomes for English learners is critical to achieving the state’s goal for grade-level reading by the third grade.”

“It is an educational game changer,” said State Rep. Grace Diaz, D-Providence, the House bill co-sponsor, at a press conference for the bills yesterday.



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