N.J. students learning English are being ‘ignored,’ report finds

Third graders at Ellis Elementary sit on a bright blue and green rug to study English with ESL teacher Bree Roon. Each of the students in this group has a different native language, including Karen, Spanish, Russian/Turkish, Arabic, and Bosnian.
An educator who teaches English as a Second Language helps students with an assignment. In New Jersey, many public schools failed to meet the needs of English learners during the pandemic, a report alleges. (J. Zubrzycki / Chalkbeat)

Many New Jersey public schools have routinely failed to meet state regulations for educating students learning English, a practice that heightened during the pandemic and remote learning, according to a new report released this week.

As a result, students with limited English, who make up about 7% of all public school students in New Jersey, are often “ignored” or treated as “invisible,” educators said.

Among the shortcomings found in the report: Important notices weren’t communicated in families’ home languages, at times causing students to go hungry during the pandemic. Bilingual aides weren’t available to help with virtual assignments, according to teachers, students, and families. Technology access and reliability limited participation in class. English learners dropped out at alarming rates in some districts due to too many absences.

But because the New Jersey bilingual education code lacks an accountability process and doesn’t have a complaint system in place that would help trigger an investigation into violations, English learners and their families “will continue to be underserved by districts that are not fulfilling their legal obligations,” the report states. 

Release of the report findings, which highlight wide-ranging lapses across New Jersey districts in meeting the needs of English language learners, comes as the state Board of Education is reviewing proposed amendments to the code, which expires early next year. The report includes recommendations to update the code in ways that would force districts to be more transparent and accountable.

“Our report makes clear that we are far from doing all we can to provide ELs with the supports they need to be successful in school,” said Emily Chertoff, director of N.J. Consortium for Immigrant Children, one of three organizations behind the report. “The pandemic has shined a bright light on that while also making the situation worse.”

The N.J. Consortium for Immigrant Children released the report Tuesday in partnership with the Education Law Center and the N.J. Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages/N.J. Bilingual Educators.

When schools were forced to close in the spring of 2020, many failed to communicate important updates to English learners’ families in their home language, including that free and reduced lunch would continue and needed to be picked up. “Students would tell me they were hungry and had not eaten enough,” said one teacher quoted in the report. 

Using in-depth surveys and interviews of 80 educators, counselors, and administrators who work with students learning English, as well as interviews and listening sessions with English learners and their families, the report found eight major ways that districts aren’t meeting state standards. 

Among the findings were that English learners don’t always receive language accommodations when they’re in English-only classrooms, many schools don’t provide bilingual mental health services, and some districts neglect to create attendance recovery policies. 

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The report also comes on the heels of a four-year investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice that alleged Newark Public Schools violated federal law by failing to properly educate many of its students learning English. That investigation found the district under-identified students who required language support, placed English learners in schools without adequate services, and failed to hire and retain enough qualified teachers. 

Many of the Newark findings were similar to the findings that researchers described in the new statewide report.

“We saw that everything that’s happening in Newark is really what’s happening everywhere, throughout New Jersey, just on a smaller scale,” said Kathleen Fernandez, executive director of NJTESOL/NJBE.

One bilingual teacher from an urban district in south Jersey was quoted in the report saying that English learners in her school “are being ignored by many teachers, failing or just passing them through to get them out of their classes.” Researchers kept the interviewees anonymous in the report and didn’t name specific districts. 

“English learners have become invisible in a system that is supposed to support them,” said a former bilingual counselor from a large suburban district in north Jersey. 

That former bilingual counselor also said that she saw 180 English learners — about half of the English learner population in her district — drop out in the 2020-2021 school year. Those students were “coded” by school administration as students who transferred out “even though all the teachers and administrators know they’re not transferring to a different school,” she said.

In the 2020-2021 school year, more than 1.28 million students were enrolled in New Jersey public schools, including 93,000 — or 7% — who are English learners. Many English learners come from immigrant families and tend to live in low-income communities. As of March 2021, the top ten languages spoken at home by English learners in New Jersey were Spanish, Arabic, Portuguese, Haitian Creole, Chinese, Korean, Gujarati, Urdu, Bengali, and Russian, according to the report.

Many caregivers of English learners in New Jersey were employed in frontline jobs and often lacked health insurance, exposing them to increased risk of COVID-19 and contributing to huge racial disparities in positive cases and deaths, the report shows. 

Some students who faced grief over the loss of parents or whose parents were frontline workers either had to stop attending virtual classes to take care of younger siblings or to start working full-time, said Fernandez, a former bilingual teacher of 20-plus years at a south Jersey district, in a phone interview.

“Because of state laws regarding attendance, some districts offer a way to remediate a high number of absences, but not all do,” Fernandez said. “If you’ve missed so many days, then you have to repeat the entire grade. But when you’re talking about students who had to take on a job during the pandemic or watch their siblings, that’s a very harsh kind of punishment and many students just opted to leave and stop going to school.”

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Instead of districts looking into the high number of absences and disappearance of students from classes, “the districts just make them disappear from their rolls by mislabeling them, and that leads to a lack of accountability because there’s no record of the student dropping out,” Fernandez said.

“Right now there’s no consequence for a district that does that,” she added. “Even if I know, as the teacher, that a student should be attending classes and I personally can reach out to the family, if the district doesn’t want to investigate, there’s no mechanism to push them to do so and no way to make an anonymous complaint.”

Here are a few of the recommendations listed in the report:

  • Develop and institute a formal and transparent compliance and accountability process to ensure that every school district follows the standards in the New Jersey Bilingual Education Code.
  • Establish a “complaint investigation” system for violations of laws protecting English learners.
  • Establish a clear and comprehensive definition of language accommodations, and require those accommodations in every classroom with English learners.
  • Help students and families access technology and Internet services with training that is accessible, linguistically and logistically.
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