Feds investigating Nashua School ELL program

NASHUA — The typical New Hampshire public school teacher is responsible for educating 12.6 students at a time, but English Language Learner teachers in Nashua are assigned an average of 49 pupils per class.

As students with first languages such as Spanish, Portuguese, and dozens of other tongues continue making their way into the Nashua School District, the U.S. Department of Justice has launched a formal investigation of the school system because of concerns that ELL students and their parents are not receiving adequate services.

“We have received reports that the district is failing to take appropriate action by not providing adequate language acquisition services to its English Learner students or meaningful communications to Limited English Proficiency (“LEP“) parents,” states a letter sent from the DOJ to school Superintendent Jahmal Mosley.

“Our Nashua kids have been deprived of the proper faculty and support for a long time,” Mosley told The Telegraph on Tuesday. “Under my administration, we have been making good strides.”

According to the government, investigators will work to determine if the district’s ELL program meets its obligations under the Equal Educational Opportunities Act of 1974, which requires “state and local educational agencies to take appropriate action to overcome language barriers that impede students’ equal participation in the agencies’ instructional programs.”

Nashua Director of Student Services and ELL Robert Cioppa said this year, the district has 27.5 teachers dedicated to these students. Last year, there were 1,346 students considered English Language Learners. That equals 49 students for every teacher.

A New Hampshire Department of Education dated May 18, 2018 states the average number of students per teacher in New Hampshire at that time was 12.6.

The Issue

“We have been very transparent about the needs of our students. We’re short-staffed in terms of giving the students the amount of services they qualify for,” Cioppa told The Telegraph.

Cioppa said it is difficult to say what the current number of ELL students in the district is, as they are still working on identifying students who have recently enrolled who need language services.

Last year, however, Cioppa said the district had a total of 1,346 ELL students. That number included 98 students who had tested out of the program, but were still being monitored.

Within the district, ELL teachers often become “case managers” for these students, Cioppa said. There are more than 50 native languages spoken by Nashua’s ELL students, with Spanish and Portuguese being the most common, while a few of the other native languages include Telugu, Vietnamese, Tamil, and Arabic.

Cioppa believes the lack of staff is the origin of the complaints and review. He said teachers and administrators haven’t been hiding this issue, and have been advocating to get more ELL teachers for the district by going to the Board of Education multiple times.

“I think we all understand that our ELL program is bulging at the seams. And we need to do better for our kids, and to support our teachers,” Cioppa told BOE members during a February meeting.

Mosley spoke similarly to Cioppa.

“The 50,000-foot view looking into this is: We need help in the funding of our public schools and this is one snap shot of many of our programs that are in need of additional funding at the state and federal levels,” Mosley said.

Mosley also said the district is not trying to hide anything.

“Everything listed with this complaint, we already started to address long before we got the complaint. This is evident in previous board meetings, the strategic plan and approving an ELL Communications Specialist,” Mosley said.

“These are Nashua kids who live in and are part of our community and that’s where the dialogue needs to start,” Mosley added.

Mosley said the district needs long-term stability and funding to support Nashua’s students and families for the next 30-40 years.

“That’s not easy. It needs to be suitable and predictable. That’s what this complaint addresses.”

For now, district officials as well as ELL teachers are gathering information for a list of 20 requests from the DOJ, which includes information on all programs and services that assist ELL students to overcome their language barriers, the total number of ELL students as well as those identified as having a disability, copies of all current policies, procedures, and guidelines for the district’s programs, information on curriculum, information from the last three years of the number of students who tested out of the program, certification and training requirements for teachers and a copy of the district’s budget for the 2018-19 and 2019-20 school years, among other information.

“If after this review we conclude that there is a violation of the Equal Educational Opportunities Act, we will provide you with notice and an opportunity to correct the problem before considering any court action. We stress that, at this time, no determination has been made regarding any violation of the EEOA,” the letter adds.

Grace Pecci may be reached at 594-1243, or at gpecci@nashuatelegraph.com.