Schools Failing Needs of Brazilian Students, U.S. Investigation Finds
By CHRIS BURRELL
A federal civil rights investigation of the Oak Bluffs and Tisbury schools has cited both for failing to meet the instructional needs of their growing population of Brazilian students.
The investigation was triggered by a parent complaint in November which alleged that the schools' lack of trained teachers, interpreters and appropriate materials was shortchanging Brazilian students.
Investigators from the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights (OCR) issued a report May 20 that raised red flags in at least four areas, ranging from poor training of staff to the use of inadequate computer programs to help teachers translate for Brazilian students, whose numbers have increased in the last few years.
In 2000, the number of students at the Oak Bluffs School classified as English language learners (ELL) was in the high twenties, nearly all of them Brazilian, according to principal Laurence Binney. This year, that tally stands at 40.
At the Tisbury School, the growth is slower. Two years ago, ELL students numbered 20. This year, there are 25 students listed for whom English is a foreign language, according to statistics in the school principal's office.
Yesterday, school officials downplayed the critical marks in the civil rights report and stressed efforts already underway to deal with the challenge of students who arrive on the Island knowing very little, if any, English.
"We welcome the opportunity to respond to the complaint so we can learn to continue to improve our program and support for this significant population of children," Vineyard schools superintendent Dr. Kriner Cash told the Gazette yesterday.
"I'm very confident that the report and the OCR complaint is not something I'm really concerned about," he added.
School leaders pointed to an $80,000 state grant won earlier this year, enabling them to hire six teaching assistants devoted solely to bolstering English skills for Brazilian students and helping classroom teachers.
"Placing emphasis on a fledgling program is a bit unfair," Oak Bluffs School principal Laurence Binney said yesterday in a telephone interview. "It's a good program here but we need to know these things to make it better."
Civil rights investigators from Boston began interviewing teachers and administrators back in January and made a site visit to the schools last month.
Their findings were detailed and lengthy - five pages for the Oak Bluffs School, and six pages for the Tisbury School - and painted a picture of school systems trying to muster a unified response to the foreign language barrier.
Areas of concern raised by the OCR were numerous. Responding to the complaint that the schools failed to give Brazilian students equal access to instructional materials, investigators found ample evidence in both schools.
While Oak Bluffs did purchase books in Portuguese and other educational materials geared for the ELL students, the report stated that "many teachers and teacher assistants either were not aware of the availability of such materials or had simply not availed themselves of their use."
In Tisbury, investigators questioned why a seventh grade student spent almost the entire year with a set of what they called kindergarten and first grade reading books. "While the material may have been initially appropriate to the student use at the start of the school year, OCR found it troubling that he had continued to use them for the duration of the year," the report stated.
The federal report also faulted the schools for failing to give Brazilian students the best instruction. They cited Tisbury teachers' "lack of awareness" about techniques for ELL students. In Oak Bluffs, investigators wrote that "few District personnel ... who provided direct instruction to ELL students had received training in the education of ELL students."
Investigators took aim at the use of computer software programs to translate for the Brazilian students. "OCR has found that such software is often inaccurate, thereby potentially complicating the efforts of ELL students to access the curriculum," the report stated.
The OCR investigation also identified three additional areas of concern at the Tisbury School not mentioned in the original complaint - namely, parental communication, assessment of ELL students and the need for classroom space.
The report called on both schools to improve communication with parents, and to refrain from using other Brazilian students as interpreters at parent-teacher conferences, for example.
At Tisbury, "the school relied heavily on two staff members who had spent a month studying Portuguese in Brazil and a Portuguese school/parent liaison person with limited oral English proficiency. The two personnel acknowledged to OCR their limitations as proficient interpreters or translators," the report stated.
Surprisingly, school faculty in Oak Bluffs and Tisbury had not seen the OCR report. Mr. Cash said he shared the report with school principals at a meeting on May 30, two days after he received a copy.
As of yesterday, Sharon Switzer, the facilitator for English as a Second Language (ESL) programs Islandwide, still had not been given a copy of the full report from the federal agency.
But Mr. Binney said he called a staff meeting to discuss the report's findings, and Tisbury School principal Maureen DeLoach plans to do the same.
School officials have already mapped out a response to the complaint, promising to implement 14 separate actions during the next school year. For Tisbury, that will mean possibly renting a modular classroom from the Edgartown School to house a reading program and make space for ESL instruction.
According to a memo from Mr. Cash, Island elementary schools will abandon use of computer programs to translate materials for students and parents and discontinue the practice of using students as interpreters during school meetings with parents.
To be sure, school officials had already identified many of the problems noted by the OCR when they applied for a state grant. In that application, written last October, Vineyard schools described the challenges of rapid growth of the Brazilian population and the lack of trained staff.
"Shortage of affordable housing and high cost of Island living make it difficult to attract certified bilingual teachers to the area," the grant proposal stated.
The proposal also pointed to the problem of low literacy rates in Brazil. "Most of these students come from a part of Brazil with little access to edudational and other services ... Many arrive here with a verbal language development level in Portuguese that is significantly below grade level," according to the application.
The grant proposal also placed the problem squarely in the context of Island life, citing the long hours worked to survive here and the impact on Brazilian students. With parents at work or asleep from late hours on the job, tardiness and absences become a chronic problem, the application stated.
Ms. Switzer said the Island schools are also scrambling to adjust to recent changes in state law that mandate new ways of dealing with students who don't know English.
"The approach is different in every school," she said. "It would be really good if we could make it the same."