November 21, 2014

Guest Column: Diversity in Vermont schools

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By Armando Vilaseca

Vermont is becoming more racially and ethnically diverse, bringing perspectives and benefits that strengthen our state. As an immigrant resettlement destination, we are home to many people from around the world, making Vermont finally reflect the diversity found across the country.

As a refugee from another country myself, I understand well the challenges that being a new American brings to families as well as to communities and schools. Learning a new language and adapting to the social and cultural differences can be daunting to new Americans who are also often struggling financially.

Having recently visited Winooski schools, I was very impressed by the dedication and efforts being made to support and educate these students. My experiences with the Burlington School District (BSD) are similar. Having visited the Integrated Arts Academy and the Sustainability Academy, I am moved by the dedication and supports made available to all students.

However, BSD has faced criticism that it has not been supportive of our new American students, and that some of these new Americans have been treated badly by the school staff and fellow students. BSD has an equity coordinator who works directly with the district on these issues. I know that as much as the district does to support all students, including the many programs and systems they have in place to support new American students, there is always more work to be done.

One of the issues of concern is the federal requirement that English Language Learners (ELLs) must take annual standardized content assessments before they’ve had a chance to develop sufficient English language proficiency. Vermont has appealed to the U.S. Department of Education to change this requirement, but without success. Although these assessments may not accurately reflect everything these students know or can do, they do serve as one source of baseline information about students’ current level of functioning in English in the core academic curriculum. In the long term, districts are held accountable through these annual assessments for showing that their instructional programs help ELLs as a group to make progress in content subjects and attain proficiency.

Federal civil rights and equal access laws, policies and court decisions also require school districts to provide ELLs with specialized language and academic support services until they have attained the level of academic English proficiency necessary to participate meaningfully in their academic courses and on content assessments. While these support services should never replace students’ participation in more academically rigorous grade-level classes, these programs seek to provide ELLs with greater access to content instruction in English while they are at the same time learning a new language.

Over the years, both the Burlington and Winooski School districts and their communities have demonstrated steadily growing recognition, support and resource allocation for creating the kinds of extra services needed to meet the educational needs of an increasingly diverse population of students and families. The schools have faculty and staff who are dedicated to supporting all students, and continue to work with staff on becoming more culturally and ethnically sensitive. The data shows that the group of students receiving ELL services during their Burlington High School career graduate and continue their education at virtually the same rate as their peers across the state.

At the same time, the district needs to be clear that harassment will not be tolerated. All schools need to address the challenges that students bring to schools in a way that is respectful and productive. I believe the statements made by the superintendent and the way the community has come together to address concerns and supports for students is a move in the right direction.

Armando Vilaseca, the Vermont Commissioner of Education, lives in Westford.

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