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Schools to implement new programs to help Somalis

By G. Michael Dobbs

Managing Editor

SPRINGFIELD Jean Caldwell said that the steps agreed upon by the Springfield Public School System to address the educational needs of Somali refugee students are "a start."

Caldwell was the school volunteer who spearheaded a complaint to the Office of Civil Rights (OCR) earlier this year on discrimination aimed at Somali students. She is a member of a group of 50 educators and concerned citizens who charged that the school district was failing to provide the Somalis with effective instruction in the English language and other academic courses.

OCR released a report on Feb. 24 that included approval of a plan submitted by the School Department to improve the educational opportunities for the Somali students.

"I'm glad Springfield chose to do something before they [were forced] to," Caldwell said. She had hoped to see more attention paid to the needs of elementary students.

The provisions in the report include:

" The District is providing a program of after school services for Somali middle school students, and will implement such a program for Somali high school students, providing support for instruction in academic content areas and the acquisition of the English language.

" The District will hire additional bilingual English/Somali tutors. The District will hire tutors as "highly qualified" paraprofessionals, providing appropriate health and other benefits.

" The District will hire a Somali outreach worker to provide translation and liaison services for parents of Somali students.

" For any student, who is the sole Somali enrolled at a District school, the District will provide that student with the opportunity to transfer to a District school at which other Somali students are enrolled. Moves for students currently enrolled will take place by February 27, 2006. Similarly, unless otherwise directed by the student's parent, the District will not assign a sole Somali student to a District school. The District's

English Language Learning Program (ELL) Director will monitor and assess services provided to ELL students at the Duggan Middle School, and will assign ELL Resource Teachers to provide direct services to ELL students at that school.

" During the summer of 2006, the District will offer Somali students a program of instruction in academic content and the acquisition of the English language.

" The District will analyze student data and hire additional staff to provide services to the Somali students.

No later than September 1, 2006, the District will reduce the number of schools to which Somali students are assigned, to ensure that sufficient District personnel, including Somali-speaking personnel, are available to provide effective instruction in academic content and the acquisition of the English language."

School Superintendent Joseph Burke told Reminder Publications that the school system could afford the plan, but finding the Somali translators needed to implement the plan might be difficult.

"The serious challenge is going to be finding the person to support the students in their home language," he said.

Because of coverage of this story in The New York Times, Burke said a Somali-speaking teacher from Canada who might be interested in relocating has contacted him.

"I hope that works out. It would be a nice outcome," Burke added.

The OCR interviewed 30 teachers, one of the two Somali translators, two of the Somali high school students and Springfield's director of student support services on Jan. 19 and 20. The OCR also reviewed the district's plan on addressing the needs of the Somali students and how the plan was implemented.

The OCR report noted in part, "The District's Plan calls for Limited English Proficiency (LEP) students to receive one to two periods of English as a Second Language (ESOL) instruction per day, but some Somali students receive no ESOL instruction at all, even if their English is very limited, and few (if any) Somali students receive more than one period per day of ESOL. Teachers reported that the amount of ESOL instruction the Somali LEP students receive is inadequate to enable them to make reasonable progress in English and other subjects.

"At the high school level, scheduling problems have sometimes prevented Somali LEP students from receiving ESOL instruction. These scheduling issues have also caused Somali LEP students to be placed in world language classes, even if the teachers viewed those classes as unsuitable for students just beginning to learn English. "Another problem that teachers reported at the high school level was a lack of instructional materials to assist them in providing English instruction to Somali LEP students, such as dictionaries and materials designed for use with preliterate students. Teachers reported that many Somali LEP students were making minimal progress in learning English."

OCR will be monitoring the program and Caldwell said that the Somali parents must be involved so they can understand their rights and be part of the monitoring process.