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March 26. 2013 9:46PM

Manchester schools' English Learner guidebook gains approval from immigrant advocates

MANCHESTER - Immigrant advocates are hailing the school board's approval of a long-awaited guidebook for the English Learner (EL) program that they say will help end the discrimination that has been alleged by some high school students.

The Board of School Committee voted 13-2 to approve the more than 40-page document at its meeting Monday. This followed a 5-2 vote by the Coordination Committee, where it had been stalled since September.

The guidebook had been in the works for several years, after a consultant's report found that the district lacked uniform rules and policies for its English Learner program.

It was given a renewed impetus last summer when current and former high school English Learner students affiliated with the Granite State Organizing Project, a group active in minority issues, came forward to charge that Manchester's program was discriminatory and segregating. One of the students was a native English speaker from Nigeria and another was a Latino born in the United States.

The district's former EL director, Jen Marino, first submitted a draft of the document in September as part of an overhaul of the program to be implemented this fall. Marino resigned earlier this month to take a principal's position in another district.

The changes proposed in the guidebook were met with resistance from high school EL teachers, who charged that the program was being unfairly maligned. Two school board members shared their concerns, and despite several revisions, the Coordination Committee was unable to finalize the guidebook.

The document underwent further changes between last week and Monday's meeting, after Superintendent Thomas Brennan became personally involved.

The changes were necessary, Brennan told the committee, to bring the district "in compliance with the laws of the state and federal government."

Thato Ramoabi, the youth organizer for the Granite State Organizing Project, echoed this view.

"We're so excited," she said in an interview Tuesday. In addition to complying with federal and state laws, she said, the guidebook "will clarify for students and parents and everybody what their responsibilities and rights are and what the program is for."

English Learner programs are governed by regulations set by the federal Department of Education, which provide much of their funding. Under recent changes to Title III, districts must establish and inform parents of entrance and exit requirements for English language instruction programs, as well as "the right that parents have to have their child immediately removed from such program upon their request."

Brennan also backed reinserting language into the guidebook that designates a "push-in" option for students.

"Push-in" refers to placing students in regular classes, with some outside language assistance, as opposed to a "pull-out," whereby English Learner students are taught in separate classes. Currently, most EL high school students in Manchester are taught in a separate program at Central High.

At the Coordination Committee meeting Monday, Brennan called the process of getting the guidebook approved "probably the most frustrating" in his time as superintendent.

Brennan said he believed Marino, who had served as the district's English Learner director for less than two years, left because she saw an opportunity "to get into school administration," not due to the resistance her agenda encountered.

Opponents of the changes argued that they could lead to students with very limited English skills being sent into regular classes, which would undermine the schools' obligation to educate them.

"I'm just the messenger, but we've had EL teachers in the district for close to 30 years, and I trust their knowledge of the rules and laws," board member Art Beaudry said. "I'm going to take their side over that of some special interest group."

Ramoabi of the Granite State Organizing Project said making parents aware that they have the right to pull their kids from the EL program was not only in line with the federal law, but was generally the best practice. "If kids feel they can do it, why not give them the benefit of the doubt so they can flourish," she said.

Eva Castillo-Turgeon, the director of the New Hampshire Alliance for Immigrants and Refugees, said the group's goal is to have kids "integrated into the school" as soon as possible.

"That is not only a way to facilitate speaking English, but the integration process. We don't want kids to be in the same separate cluster for so long," she said.

tsiefer@unionleader.com

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