Test takers who are still learning English get a special treat this time of year.
Pssst: Did you know that there is a connection between how well one speaks English and how well one performs on a test conducted in English? If your answer was "No," "I don’t understand the question," or "Charter schools," an exciting leadership opportunity awaits. It’s time for another round of Let's Take Over a District. This season’s lucky winner: scenic Holyoke, Massachusetts. We’re headed west, young reader, and there’s not a moment to spare.
Good luck with that
Shall we begin with a bit of context? Readers who reside outside of the Bay State’s 10,555 square miles (note: includes water) might be surprised to learn that the state consists of more than Kennedys, Bradys, Wahlbergs, and Bulfinches. In fact, Massachusetts is home to an astonishing diversity of immigrants who come from all over the world to enjoy our ten months of winter. Many of these newest residents reside in what are known as "Gateway Cities" like Holyoke. And the newest, newest residents—those young enough to go to school—receive an extra special welcome this time of year: a bilingual dictionary, a sharpened pencil, and a standardized test given in English.
We’re number one (year)
But wait—there’s more, or rather, mas in this case. You see, back in 2002, Massachusetts voted to get rid of bilingual education in favor of a speedier system that would require students to learn English in a year because, well, ¿how hard can it really be to learn another language? For school districts like Holyoke, where close to 30 percent of students are still learning English, this presents something of a challenge, especially since the state, which is now poised to take over the Holyoke schools for persistently low test scores, has found that the "one-year and you’re mainstreamed" policy leads to proficiency for just 20 percent of English Language Learners. Oh, and that ELL students are three times more likely to drop out of school, which I’m pretty sure is also one of the reasons why the state is now considering serving papers on Paper City.
¿Comprende? Perhaps Holyoke student Carlos Dominicci Feliciano who arrived in the US at the age of 10 and took seven years to learn English en route to becoming a valedictorian can help us understand why the state’s policy doesn’t make any sense. Carlos: take it away.
Rhymes with "smarter"
In other words, we have here a classic Catch Veintidós situation in which the same problemo exacerbated by state policy is now being used to justify state intervention to fix the problemo exacerbated by state policy. In other other words, my cabeza hurts. If only there was a silver bullet solution practically guaranteed to make everything better. Wait for it…Wait for it… ¡Charter schools! You see, the same state that is currently "debating" whether or not to "receive" the Holyoke schools has all but wrapped up its debate over what kind of schools are the greatest. While you were out shoveling, members of the "charter harder" crowd officially took the edu-reins. Like new board chair Paul Sagan, who introduced himself at a recent board meeting by declaring that traditional public schools have failed and that it’s time to look for alternatives. What kind of alternatives? Like the Mystic Valley Charter School, beloved by Sagan and Secretary of Education Jim Peyser, which educates no still-learning-English students at all. ¡Ninguno!
A fun game to play at home
In fact, it’s now such a poorly kept secret that charter schools in Massachusetts serve a fraction of the still-learning-English student population served by public schools that even this guy is onto it. Here’s a fun game to play at home. Drop by a Gateway City school district like this one, and compare the number of ELL students to those who attend the local charter. Now repeat in city after city until you can stand it no mas. What does our game teach us? That most of the state’s charter schools appear to have figured out an innovative work around to the problem that still-learning-English students tend to score lower on tests given in English: not teaching them. Which raises a pretty serious pregunta: ¿if the state’s preferred solution these days leaves out most of the students that the state has determined are most in need of help, isn’t that kind of a problem?
Note: the state hearing to determine the future of the Holyoke Public Schools will take place on April 27th from 4-7PM, The War Memorial Hall, 310 Appleton St., Holyoke.
Jennifer C. Berkshire began blogging in 2012 after spending six years writing about public education and urban schools in Massachusetts. Read her work at Edushyster.