By KEN PRANSKY
Published on November 13, 2009
Amherst was once a school system many communities with diverse populations envied. In the last couple of years, though, much has been abandoned. Especially with the changes being made in the name of redistricting, the heart and soul of our schools is shifting with regard to how we will go about educating some of our most vulnerable learners. And while reasonable people can differ on ideas, I fear these decisions have not been as transparent or informed as they should be and that the students and families most affected by these changes deserve.
One example concerns the end of our longstanding language and culture cluster programs. The School Committee and central administration have stated flatly on multiple occasions that they are illegal. Many of us tried to tell them that they are not illegal if done as English language learner programs.
We were not listened to. I thought, I'm not a lawyer, maybe I'm wrong. But I recently got a hold of a copy of the legal opinion from the firm of Murphy, Hesse, Toomey and Lehane that was sent to administration in response to their queries about the legality of our cluster programs. I quote directly from the opinion: "If the district believes that grouping its students based on their language of origin is the fastest, most effective way of teaching English, such a policy would be permissible but not preferable under (state law)."
An email from School Committee member Catherine Sanderson to me confirms that this is well understood by the committee (and thus by implication, the administration as well). Well, all our cluster programs - the Cambodian cluster, Latino cluster and Chinese cluster - are English language education programs. Thus, they are quite legal after all. One is left to draw one's own conclusion about the School Committee's and administration's unequivocal pronouncements about illegality.
Later in the opinion, the lawyer responded to a specific question about "the grouping of students by ethnic group who are fluent in English, and therefore not ELL students." We have no programs like that, so why that question? How could all this misinformation have gone unnoticed for so long, and repeated so often in public, accompanied by such a negative, accusatory tone? What is going on?
This whole process has been shocking, and tainted. I feel particularly bad for the parents who came out to plead for those programs at the public forums, only to be falsely told they were illegal. Given the clear legality of our language/culture cluster ELL programs, and now that the School Committee and administration know, I respectfully ask that they revisit their decision to end them.
But maybe the School Committee and administration do not believe that clustering is, in the words of the legal opinion, the "fastest, most effective way of teaching English."
There certainly can be ideological disagreements and that's fair - just be honest and say so. At least then, supporters have a chance to show MCAS, graduate rate and other data from our ELL programs' excellent 20-plus year track record that makes their case in support of the families that may not be able to advocate for themselves. The schools belong to our whole town, and we all deserve transparency and honesty about whatever agenda is driving decisions about them - certainly not least, the communities most affected.
As someone who served for 20 years in this district, often with populations of very struggling learners who were able to surmount many obstacles because of the support provided to them, I am sad about a lot of what is going on now.
I also wonder why teacher voices are increasingly unheeded in this district, especially in these times when their perspective is so badly needed.
That is one of the saddest things of all.
Ken Pransky has been teaching in the ESL field for more than 30 years, 20 of those as a teacher at Fort River school. For the last couple of years he has been on leave, doing teacher consulting and training in districts across the state, specializing in ESL and student underachievement issues.
A note from Catherine: Since Ken specifically refers to me as stating that the clusters are legal, I want to clarify exactly what I said, and where I disagree with his statements in this piece. First, all of our cluster programs are not in fact ELL programs. We have students who speak English fluently who are being clustered based on their culture in a given school (and receiving free transportation to those schools -- this is what is in fact illegal). Second, if we were to keep the clusters, children who became proficient at English at some point during the 7 years of elementary school would then need to return to their local school -- they could not remain at the school where they were clustered (meaning these children would then have a major change to a school in which they didn't necessarily have friends/know teachers; it could also easily mean that families could have children in different elementary schools). That doesn't sound ideal to me. Third, the School Committee doesn't in fact control how we provide education to particular groups of kids (e.g., how we provide service to ELL students, how we provide service to kids with autism, etc.) -- that is the role of the school administration, so it is up to them to decide how best to educate ELL kids. However, the state does NOT recommend that kids are clustered by language (precisely because such an approach has not been shown to be the most effective way of teaching kids English), and thus I believe the administration is wise in following state recommendations and ending the clustering program. Nonetheless, this is not a School Committee decision -- as evidenced by the fact that the SC never voted to continue or discontinue the language clusters.