When New Jersey schools switched to distance learning at the start of the pandemic last year, parents everywhere made an effort to get their children to log their children into online study classes.
But the struggle has been particularly difficult for immigrant and non-English speaking families with limited access to the Internet and few instructions sent in their mother tongue by school districts.
“In the beginning we only had one computer for three children. The teachers gave them about 18 absenteeism and even though we told the teachers (about the computers) they just said it was our responsibility, ”recalls a mother from a family with limited English in an urban school district in North Jersey.
Distance learning is like “starting from scratch” for her immigrant family, the nameless mother said in a report released Tuesday describing the obstacles students continue to face in learning English in many New Jersey school districts.
The 67-page report, titled “English Learners in New Jersey: Uncovering Inequalities and Expanding Opportunities in the Wake of the Pandemic,” claims that many public school districts ignore government regulations, leaving students learning English lacking services and requirements Provincial law offers educational opportunities.
The report calls for a major overhaul of the New Jersey Bilingual Education Code, the state regulation that governs how students with impaired English are taught. It also calls for a new system for government officials to oversee that school districts comply with the rules for training English learners known as ELs.
“Our report makes it clear that we are far from doing everything in our power to give ELs the support they need to be successful in school,” said Emily Chertoff, director of the NJ Consortium for Immigrant Children, a nationwide coalition of advocacy groups. “The pandemic has shed a bright light on this and at the same time made the situation worse.”
The report comes two months later Newark, the state’s largest school district, has reached an agreement with federal officials after a multi-year investigation found it was not teaching properly to students who spoke limited English.
New Jersey, which has one of the highest rates of immigration in the country, enrolled approximately 93,000 students with limited English speaking in the 2020-2021 school year, according to the report. That was about 7% of the total school population and almost twice as many English learners as ten years ago.
The main countries of origin of immigrants from New Jersey are India (13% of immigrants), the Dominican Republic (10%), Mexico (5%), Ecuador (4%) and the Philippines (4%). the report. The top languages spoken at home by English learners in New Jersey are Spanish, Arabic, Portuguese, Haitian Creole, Chinese, Korean, Gujarati, Urdu, Bengali, and Russian.
Under the New Jersey Bilingual Education Code, Students who speak little or no English are entitled to “free, adequate public education”. Students enrolled in bilingual, ESL, and English language utilities must have “full access to educational services available to other students in the school district”.
The report includes an in-depth survey of 80 English as a second language and bilingual educators, administrators and counselors. It also includes interviews with parents, carers, and students conducted between April and July 2021.
Some of the respondents make serious allegations, including that some New Jersey school districts disregard state rules that require bilingual instruction. About a third of educators and administrators surveyed in the report said non-compliance with the bilingual education law was a “major problem” in their precincts prior to the pandemic.
“I think they’re working hard on it (English learner). . . invisible. COVID-19 has exacerbated this. But even before COVID-19 (English learners) was isolated and kept separate from the others, “an unnamed former North Jersey school counselor said in the report. “We need a better system.”
About 10% of educators surveyed said their schools rely on Google Translate, an often inaccurate online translation tool, to deliver lessons and assignments to foreign language speakers rather than providing required language services.
The report also described how some school districts allegedly fail to communicate with parents in languages they understand, and how some schools misreport drop-outs and immigrant absences for fear of increasing their drop-out rates.
But the report does not identify which school districts are alleged to be circumventing government regulations, and the names of parents, teachers and principals interviewed are kept anonymous.
The report, published by the NJ Consortium for Immigrant Children, the Education Law Center, and the NJ Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages / NJ Bilingual Educators, includes a list of recommendations for the Murphy administration and state lawmakers.
Their recommendations include:
- Develop a new accountability system to ensure districts meet the requirements of the state’s bilingual education law.
- Rewrite the code to encourage and improve language adaptations and training for teachers.
- Create a “compliant investigation system” for parents and advocates to report schools that violate the bilingual code, similar to the system that already exists for special needs students.
- Offer bilingual mental health services and counseling to help English learners deal with the effects of the pandemic and other issues.
- Spend more money recruiting bilingual and minority educators to better reflect the diversity of New Jersey public schools.
“Our goal is to help educators and policy makers understand the relevant laws, that every school in every district must obey, and that legal requirements must be strengthened to guarantee ELs the kind of education we are all proud of said Jessica Levin, senior attorney for the Education Law Center.
Newark has already been cited by the federal government for widespread failures in providing services to students learning English. The Federal Justice Department announced a deal with the Newark Public Schools in September after a four-year investigation.
The state investigation found that Newark regularly removed students from English learning programs before they became fluent, did not hire and retain qualified teachers for its programs, and in some cases did not offer any language services to students at all.
Under the settlement Newark will remain under state surveillance for at least three years At the same time, it improves the education of English learners, who make up about 20% of the district’s nearly 37,000 students.
“We will continue to hold school districts and other education authorities accountable so that all students in New Jersey have equal access to educational opportunities,” said incumbent US Attorney Rachael Honig when announcing the settlement.
Governor Phil Murphy’s administration has also addressed some of the problems encountered with distance learning at the start of the pandemic, including the lack of computers and internet access in many low-income families and immigrants. In March, Murphy announced that every student in New Jersey will now have access to a laptop and internet access after the state allocated $ 54 million in federal pandemic aid to districts to help bridge the digital divide.
“Now our job is shifting to making sure the digital divide doesn’t open up again,” Murphy said at the time.
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Kelly Heyboer can be reached at [email protected].