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Burlington Seeks To Improve English Language Learner Program

AP/ Toby Talbot

The Burlington School District is the most diverse in the state. But the district has been criticized for not providing an equal education experience to minority students, especially those who are not native English speakers.

Burlington’s English Language Learner program was recently evaluated, and now the district is taking those recommendations into account.

Burlington’s status as a U.S. refugee resettlement city makes the city home to families from all over the world. When refugee families arrive, not all speak English.

That’s reflected at the Burlington School District. Of approximately 3,500 students, 14 percent identify as “limited English proficient” and require additional language instruction.

For these English Language Learners, or ELLs, the district has a program to combine English instruction along with the content of a typical course load.

"Every classroom I walked into, the photos were all white, mainstream Christian photographs. That has changed." -Nikki Fuller

Linda Walsleben is the program’s director. She says elementary-school- age ELL students are immersed in mainstream classes right away. But it’s different for older students:

“That changes a little bit at the high school level, where there are more sheltered classes and more ELL content classes,” said Walsleben.

But critics have said students are not becoming fluent in English by the time they complete the program. The district reported last month that just over 13 percent of ELLs became proficient enough to no longer need services.

Last year, the New England Equity Assistance Center, which is a federally funded agency, conducted a needs assessment of the ELL program at the request of the district. The Center made a number of recommendations, including more staff training and a clearer outline of the program. Walsleben says the feedback is being taken into consideration:

“It’s really a planning year to see what we’re going to do with the information we’ve gotten,” said Walsleben.

The district also got feedback from ELL parents at a public meeting last week. Walsleben says the district is still sifting through translations of the comments, which were written in several languages.

It’s not only the ELL program that’s been criticized. There have been reports of racially motivated bullying and other complaints from minority students and their parents.

Nikki Fuller is the Senior Director of Diversity for the Burlington School District. She says she’s seen a change in the classrooms in the year she’s held that title:

“When I first started, virtually every classroom I walked into, the photos were all of white mainstream Christian photographs,” said Fuller.  “That has changed. Those may seem small, but they’re huge.”

Fuller says that’s at least partially because teachers have requested training to become more culturally competent.

The NEEAC assessment of the ELL program backs up Fuller’s observation. The report identified “teacher empathy” as one of Burlington’s key strengths with regard to English Language Learners.

Fuller also thinks that families now feel more comfortable going to the administration with concerns:

“There was a time, we wouldn’t have even gotten these complaints, because they felt nobody was going to do anything about them anyway,” said Fuller.

Administrators noted more staff trainings as a one of the first priorities, but the district admits there is still much more to do.

Annie Russell was VPR's Deputy News Director. She came to VPR from NPR's Weekends on All Things Considered and WNYC's On The Media. She is a graduate of Columbia Journalism School.
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