Language, Learning, and Legacy: The Journey of Multilingual Students in Massachusetts
By Ralph Saint-Louis
When I stopped by Nick’s desk during the second week of school, he was hard at work on a problem that had nothing to do with high school biology, the class that I teach. Instead, Nick carefully wrote, “The weather is sunny,” in English and Pashto, his first language. Nick is diligent and resilient; he does everything he can to understand the biology content. It is not his fault that what he lacks in understanding the science I teach and what he is still learning about the foundations of the English language have left him in need of much more support than our school is currently equipped to handle.
My high school has over 852 multilingual learners (MLL) who speak 32 languages. These students have vastly different life and educational experiences; Nick, for example, has had very limited and often interrupted education in his home country of Afghanistan. according to our evaluation, he has the science background of an elementary or early middle school student.
Massachusetts is one of only eight states to require all students to pass standardized tests to receive a high school diploma. This means Nick must pass the state-level standardized science, mathematics, and English Language Arts tests to graduate from high school. In particular, in science, he is expected to make up several years of interrupted learning in Afghanistan in just one year. If he fails, he will be ineligible for a high school diploma, jeopardizing his opportunities and future. Nick is not the only one; there are many students in my school and district with a similar trajectory.
Students like Nick need more than just direct classroom instruction. They need a range of services and resources such as teacher aides in English Second Language classrooms, well-funded translation services, family and parent liaisons, enrichment programs for targeted intervention, time allocated for professional development, and partnerships with local organizations that provide afterschool support like tutoring and other wrap-around services. What they need is a school that looks at the students as individuals and meets their needs accordingly.
Fortunately, my school is taking incremental steps to take Nick’s needs seriously and is working to ensure he has the necessary resources and support. Considering the influx of immigrant and refugee students in my district, our school applied for and received a state grant to run an enrichment program that extended the school year by a week for targeted interventions designed to help our MLLs catch up to their peers. Unfortunately, only some schools in Massachusetts receive the necessary funding and have enough staff to make a meaningful impact.
This year, I am teaching a half-year course in the spring. For the first half of the year, I was expecting to be in an MLL science classroom to provide additional support for students like Nick until we had an influx of immigrant students. I was pulled into providing another Biology section because our MLL classrooms had over 30 students. Time after time, due to funding and staff turnover, schools are forced to compromise on using funds to support all students at the expense of increased support for students like Nick. To make matters worse, new programs and initiatives are introduced each year, reducing funding and capacity for previously introduced programs and leaving teachers like me wondering when or if the needs of our students have changed. This approach creates an unfunded mandate: in other words, school districts are working to meet students’ needs but without the funding to do so thoroughly. That is a recipe for failure. Instead, the state must continue to allocate funding to meet the needs of students such as Nick and others like him from non-traditional backgrounds.
Securing funding from initiatives such as the Student Opportunity Act (SOA) and the Fair-Share Amendment is crucial to supporting students in Massachusetts. We need the type of graduation requirement that balances high expectations for our ELL students and other marginalized students with ensuring that they continue to learn and to find joy in learning. Such an approach, with the effective use of funds and community participation in deciding where the money should be allocated, will help ensure that we provide the necessary support for all our students.
In my classroom, I am confronted daily with the reality that Nick requires more support than I alone can provide. By recognizing his unique needs and those of other underserved students, collaborating with the community, and dedicating the necessary resources, we can pave the way for a more equitable and inclusive educational environment. Together, let us seize this opportunity to make a lasting impact on the lives of students like Nick and create a brighter future for all.
Ralph Saint-Louis teaches MLL Biology, College Prep Chemistry, Honors Biology, and AP STEM Education at Lowell Public High School in Lowell. He is a Teach Plus Massachusetts Senior Policy Fellow.