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December 16. 2012 10:04PM

English Learner overhaul stalled by Manchester school subpanel

MANCHESTER - In July, the coordinator for the district's English Learner program outlined a sweeping overhaul plan, to be worked out over the course of the school year and implemented next fall.

Five months later, what was supposed to be a first step in the process - an EL guidebook for teachers, parents and students - has yet to get past a school board subcommittee.

Last Monday, the coordination committee again tabled the guidebook issue for up to another three months. Three months earlier, the subcommittee had voted to hold off approving the document, due to concerns expressed by two board members that current EL teachers were not sufficiently consulted.

The guidebook presented to the subcommittee on Monday had since been revised based on additional feedback and a questionnaire sent to all of the EL teachers.

School board member Art Beaudry, who has criticized some the changes being proposed to the EL program, said based on what he's heard from teachers, there still is not enough support.

"Here we are again, trying to pass a guidebook that is not complete. I'd like to see all the teachers on board with this," he said at the meeting last week. "In September, if we had passed this, all these highlighted changes would not be in the document."

The subcommittee had initially voted 3-3 to approve the guidebook; a tie vote means a motion fails.

The proposed changes to the EL program have had wide reverberations. In July, a group of current and former EL students with the Granite State Organizing Project (GSOP), a community-activist group, charged that Manchester's high school EL program segregated them and limited their opportunities. At least one student in the program was a native English speaker. Some of these same charges were made by members of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission at an aldermen's hearing in August.

English Learner programs must comply with a host of requirements at the state and federal level, where much of their funding comes from. Jennifer Marino, who recently was hired as district's EL director, has said that the overhaul she is seeking is driven partly by the need to bring the program into compliance with these requirements.

Marino did not return a call for comment on Thursday.

A main component of the changes proposed by Marino is eliminating the current magnet program at Central High, where all high school English Learners in the district are taught. The new program would break up the Central program and have EL teams at each of the high schools.

One feature of overhaul would be to "push in" English Learners into regular classes as soon as possible, and offering only a limited amount of separate "pull-out" classes for EL students. Advocates of this approach, including the GSOP, refer to it as "mainstreaming."

A number of teachers appear to have had objections to a section of the original guidebook that stated that a high school EL student "is placed in a directed studies, push-in program" based on test scores.

The revised version states the student "may be placed in a directed studies, push-in, or pull-out program." In addition to test scores, the revised booklet says the placement may also be based on an EL teacher's recommendation.

At last week's subcommittee meeting, Assistant Superintendent Michael Tursi stressed that the guidebook was not intended to establish new policies. "It's intended mostly as a working document. These are guidelines. They give teachers guidance and point in a direction when questions come up, particularly around testing students," he said.

Tursi also noted that most of the 27 teachers who responded to a questionnaire about the guidebook, sent out after the first delay, responded favorably to it.

Board member Debra Gagnon Langton, who shares some of Beaudry's concerns about the document, said she questioned how accurately the feedback reflected all of the teachers' views.

"I don't think we want to send out something that is not completed," she said.

Much of the nearly 50-page guidebook contains an outline of procedures for testing in and out of the EL program, copies of forms, and a list of outside resources and contact numbers.

The report presented to the subcommittee also includes a letter from Sue Stepick, the state education department director for Title III, the federal program that governs English language education.

"I'm pleased to say that the EL handbook and follow-up training sessions for staff represent a clear step forward in unifying practices and clarifying the structure of Manchester's program for English Learners," she writes.

tsiefer@unionleader.com

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