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English Language Learners frustrated by Manchester system

New Hampshire Union Leader

July 15. 2012 9:32PM
Former Manchester Central High School student Flor D'Liz Gomez stands in the school's courtyard. (MARK BOLTON/UNION LEADER)
MANCHESTER - Flor D'Liz Gomez arrived in Manchester when she was in the eighth grade. And although she attended regular classes at Hillside Middle School, she was flagged as an English Language Learner and placed in ELL study hall by the time she got to Central High School, she recounted in a recent interview.

She told her guidance counselor she didn't need the ELL study hall, but she ended up alongside students struggling with English.

'It made me feel like, 'Is there something wrong with me?'' Gomez said. Her country? America. Her place of birth? Cambridge, Mass.

While city officials have complained for years about the burdens that immigrants and refugees place on the schools, students such as Gomez, her peers, their parents and an advocacy organization have started to criticize the way Manchester has approached their education.

They paint a picture of students who languish in the ELL classrooms and grow discouraged by misplacements and easy material.

Little incentive exists, they say, to move out of the ELL program, which collects federal dollars for every enrolled student.

And they question why the program is segregated. At the high school level, ELL students are shipped to Central, and at Central the program is confined to the top floor of the Practical Arts Building.

'It's like they're making fun of us, and white kids shouldn't be up there,' said Meshack Bukuru, a Burundi refugee who is now taking criminal justice courses at Manchester Community College.

Not segregation

School officials defend the program but also say it is in flux, in part because of the budget and in part because of changes in two key positions. Both Jennifer Marino, the Manchester coordinator of ELL, and Central High School Principal Ronald Mailhot just finished their first year in their jobs.

Both said they can't explain a program that was in place before they started.

'This is something we're looking into,' Marino said about complaints of segregation. 'The movement of the future is more kids are main-streamed.'

Mailhot said he's taken some steps to address ELL issues. He's allowed three grant-funded family-liaison people into the schools to work with students. And several New Hampshire colleges now offer on-site application and acceptance. But he disputed any notion that Central segregates its ELL students and said criticisms amount to gossip.

Mailhot said other academic departments, such as social studies and English, are located in one area of the school.

'It's not a segregation. If anything else, it's more a collaboration among teachers,' Mailhot said.

Changes called for

Granite State Organizing Project, a community-activist group, has called for four changes to ELL:

--Eliminate the use of Central as a magnet school for ELL and offer the program at all three city high schools;

-Stop segregating Central ELL students;

--Mainstream ELL students as soon as possible, and provide adequate support such as a classroom assistant;

--Implement clear policies regarding ELL placement and success.

During the 2011-12 school year, Manchester had 2,026 ELL students enrolled in its schools at all grades, about 43 percent of all ELL students in the state, according to the state Education Department website.

The state directed $314,000 in federal Title III moneys to Manchester for ELL instruction.

Two recent studies have given the city's ELL program mixed reviews. In 2010, the consulting group Learning Innovations at WestEd gave a host of recommendations for improving ELL, including a full-time ELL coordinator, staff training, a liaison for ELL parents and a more diverse pool of teachers.

Then in 2011, a research team of Brown University students and faculty assisted Granite State Organizing Project and Youth Organizers United in a review of Manchester ELL programs.

It said ELL students found it difficult to exit ELL programs and felt they lacked support and preparation for college. It reported test gaps between ELL and mainstream students, but ELL students tested better at Central than those in Concord, Burlington, Vt., and Central Falls, R.I.

The report recommends more teacher training and use of peer mentors for ELL students.

Students speak out

Gomez said she eventually got fed up with Central and transferred to West, where she found support and interest among the teachers. She graduated in 2011.

Hers is not the only story of misplacement. A Nigerian immigrant, Segun Olorunfemi, said Central placed his daughter in ELL classes even though English is the official language of Nigeria and she was fluent.

The downfall: she could not enter the University of New Hampshire because she lacked college prep classes, he said.

Other students complain that ELL material is demeaning.

Bukuru said students are given pictures such as a dog or picnic and asked to describe them.

'It's the stupidest thing ever,' he said. 'People think it's first grade.' He eventually tested out of ELL in his junior year, but by then it was too late to take classes such as chemistry and algebra II, which means he had to attend a community college rather than a four-year program, he said.

Even at New Hampshire Technical Institute, officials tried to put him in an ELL class. He refused and is doing fine, he said.

Refaat Bashrr, who comes from The Sudan, said some students stay in ELL for four or five years, which he thinks is too long.

'I'm not going to say they didn't (prepare me for community college). It did help,' he said. But had he gotten out sooner, he thinks he could have been accepted in a four-year college; he attends school at Manchester Community College.

Federal guidelines

Gomez questioned why students have to test out of ELL.

'If a person feels confident enough, we should take a chance on them and let them do it,' Gomez said.

But Marino said federal guidelines require ELL students to test out of ELL classes. 'We certainly won't let a child flounder in a class they can't handle,' Mailhot said.

Marino said that there is a debate over how best to teach ELL students. She said some studies show that ELL students gain proficiency quicker when they are given access to mainstream classes.

She also said that the idea of opening up ELL programs in all three high schools is an eventual goal. But she said it is only being discussed, and a program has to be in place before a student is moved.

Mailhot said he expects some changes in ELL just because of budget cuts. For example, last year's ELL program offered ELL-oriented courses in health, U.S. history, math and civics.

But he expects to have far fewer ELL teachers in the coming school year. ELL students will probably be main-streamed to lower-level classes in health, history, math and civics, he said.

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