Report: New Jersey schools fall short in serving students who are learning English

By: - November 26, 2021 7:03 am

New Jersey has about 93,000 students who are English learners in its 686 operating school districts. (Photo by Brandon Bell/Getty Images)

The pandemic worsened long-existing deficiencies in how New Jersey public school districts educate students who are learning to speak English, according to a recent report by three groups that advocate on education and immigration issues.

English learners are disproportionately students of color and poor, so schools’ failure to meet their needs during the pandemic — and the resulting shift to virtual learning — underscores the entrenched inequities they experience, the report notes.

New Jersey has about 93,000 students who are English learners in its 686 operating school districts — that’s about 7% of the state’s 1.28 million students.

The report highlights several areas where districts fell short in serving students learning English, as they are required to do under the state’s Bilingual Education Code: technological inaccessibility of virtual classrooms; insufficient professional development focused on English learners; and a lack of bilingual mental health services.

Schools often fail to provide language accommodations in English-only classes, with some schools even relying on Google Translate as their primary language accommodation for students not yet fluent in English, the report says.

A top concern is the state’s lack of a compliance and accountability process to ensure schools are complying with the Bilingual Education Code, one advocate said.

“Special education does have that process, so that parents and teachers have some recourse to report if districts are not following the code,” said Kathleen Fernandez, executive director of New Jersey Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages/New Jersey Bilingual Educators.

That’s why Fernandez’s group — along with its two partners on the report, the New Jersey Consortium for Immigrant Children and the Education Law Center — will spend the coming year lobbying lawmakers and education officials to strengthen the code, which is up for renewal in 2023.

Such shortcomings have real and potentially life-altering  consequences: Absenteeism and drop-out rates rose among English learners during the pandemic, the report says. Advocates suspect drop-out rates are higher than official numbers show, because some districts wrongly listed students who failed to tune in to virtual classes as transfers, Fernandez said.

Many districts continue to communicate with students’ families solely in English.

“When families don’t understand school rules and regulations, they miss out and larger problems occur,” Fernandez said. “It’s really inappropriate in this day and age for a school district to send information home in English only.”

The report takes the state Department of Education to task for failing to provide sufficient guidance, support, and enforcement to ensure English learners didn’t fall through the cracks.

“These issues were a problem before the pandemic, but during the pandemic, they became exacerbated,” Fernandez said. “I am a retired ESL teacher who began teaching in the ’80s, and these things were problematic way back then. It’s past time to fix this.”

The report comes just two months after the U.S. Department of Justice, after a four-year investigation, found “wide-ranging failures” in how Newark public schools serves students learning English. Under a settlement agreement, the district promised to overhaul its services for bilingual students.

The report urges school districts and public officials to:

  • Create a transparent accountability process to ensure they are complying with the New Jersey Bilingual Education Code.
  • Establish a system for people to report violations and complaints to be investigated.
  • Require professional development focused on English learners for all teachers, administrators, and staff.
  • Provide technology, Internet access, and accessible training to English learners.
  • Communicate to students’ families in languages they understand and formats they can access.
  • Provide bilingual mental health services for English learners.
  • Recruit bilingual educators, administrators, and mental health professionals.

Michael Yaple, a spokesman for the state Department of Education, didn’t specifically address the report’s criticisms but said the state Board of Education is considering proposed changes to the state’s bilingual education regulations that would align the current code with the federal Every Student Succeeds Act.

The department’s rule-making process includes receiving comments from the public, Yaple added.

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Dana DiFilippo
Dana DiFilippo

Dana DiFilippo comes to the New Jersey Monitor from WHYY, Philadelphia’s NPR station, and the Philadelphia Daily News, a paper known for exposing corruption and holding public officials accountable. Prior to that, she worked at newspapers in Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, and suburban Philadelphia and has freelanced for various local and national magazines, newspapers and websites. She lives in Central Jersey with her husband, a photojournalist, and their two children.