Johnston’s MLL population soars

Schools struggle to provide equitable education to multilingual learners

Posted 10/26/23

In 2015, Johnston schools counted just 113 multilingual learners (MLL) in the district. Eight years later, that number has more than doubled, to 270 MLL students in 2023, and that number continues to …

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Johnston’s MLL population soars

Schools struggle to provide equitable education to multilingual learners


In 2015, Johnston schools counted just 113 multilingual learners (MLL) in the district. Eight years later, that number has more than doubled, to 270 MLL students in 2023, and that number continues to soar.

According to state data, only one in 10 Johnston MLL students are meeting or exceeding expectations in reading — and only one in 20 scored proficient in math.

A trend has been identified in Johnston and across most of the Ocean State. Rhode Island’s public schools are tasked with educating more and more children for whom English is a second language.

The Rhode Island Public Expenditure Council (RIPEC) issued their October policy brief on “Funding Challenges for a Rapidly Growing K-12 Student Population.”

“I shared the RIPEC report with my administrators last week,” according to Johnston Schools Superintendent Dr. Bernard DiLullo Jr. “I pointed out the increase in MLL students. In fact, Johnston was one of the districts that saw this population triple in six years.”

The district’s already facing belt-tightening measures and pending top-to-bottom financial reviews following an attempt by the town’s mayor to launch a financial “takeover” of the school system. Administrators have had to account for every taxpayer cent spent, and educating a swelling group of MLL students has required significant investments.

“Due to the increasing MLL registering students, Johnston added two additional MLL teachers at the elementary level this year,” DiLullo explained. “I see this trend continuing in the next few years and districts will require additional funding to support these students.”

The State House

Legislators have started to respond to skyrocketing data by allocating more money to local school districts for MLL education, according to Speaker of Rhode Island’s House of Representatives K. Joseph Shekarchi, a Warwick Democrat.

“The needs of the student population is always changing and we do our best to respond to student needs in real-time,” Shekarchi said. “For example, we have addressed MLL needs for the last three years while I’ve been Speaker by increasing funding for MLL students.”

State Rep. Enrique Sanchez (D-Dist. 9, Providence) worked as a Spanish teacher at city high schools like Providence Central, Mt. Pleasant and Dr. Jorge Alvarez High.

He’s seen first-hand packed Providence classrooms, full of young primarily Spanish-speaking students struggling to get attention from the district’s shrinking teaching staff.

“It’s very complex,” Sanchez said Monday morning. “There is an education crisis in the city. It comes down to a number of mechanisms that need to be adjusted. We’re dealing with a mass overflow of teachers who have left the school district.”

Providence alone accounts for more than half of the state’s multilingual learners (MLL), estimated at 50.6%.

In a massive hemorrhage of experience, according to Sanchez, more than 300 teachers have left the Providence school system over just the past few years.

Adequate education for MLL “costs a lot of money,” Sanchez said. “And the Rhode Island Department of Education (RIDE) really isn’t providing that.”

Many classrooms now have up to 30 students per educator.

“How do you make sure every student in class is getting attention?” Sanchez asked. “We need to change our curriculum as well.”

The Surging Trend

Each school year, more Rhode Island students require MLL support.

More than 90% of all MLL attend schools in just 10 Ocean State school districts, according to RIPEC.

This year, the Central Falls School District made state history, officially becoming the first district in Rhode Island “with more than half its students classified as multilingual learners,” the report states.

RIPEC estimates the state’s MLL student body swelled 9,372 to 15,260 students in the past eight years (a 62.8 percent increase, 2015-2023). Overall, 12.5% of the state’s public school students classify as MLL (up from 7.2% in 2015).

The vast majority of the state’s MLL speak Spanish at home (80.1%) — Creole and Pidgin (4.2%), Portuguese (2.6%), Arabic (1.3%) and Chinese (1%). Rhode Island Department of Education (RIDE) reports 142 different languages spoken in the homes of Rhode Island’s MLL students.

“Every day, many people arrive from many countries around the world,” Sanchez said, rattling off a long list of countries and continents, like Ukraine, Asia and Africa. “The more students there are, it becomes more and more work for the school district and RIDE to address.”

Johnston State Rep. Deb Fellela amplified the call for more educators, but acknowledged the challenges inherent in asking seasoned educators to go back to school to learn a new language.

“Right now we see a lot of graduates not going into the education field,” Fellela said. “As I've seen in Providence the administration is requiring that teachers have that degree to teach those students.  Maybe an incentive for college students going into teaching if they would consider getting MLL certified with either a stipend or something that will attract folks to this field once again. That is difficult as a teacher may be close to retirement and now, she is mandated to go back to get that degree and is burdened with the cost associated with taking courses.

Across the Board Increases

The multilingual learner population of North Providence increased 341.8%, soaring from 91 MLL students in 2015 to 402 in 2023.

RIPEC cites the Nation’s Report Card — the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) — which offers “some evidence that (MLL) in Rhode have worse educational outcomes than (MLL) in the nation overall.”

Test scores show 60% of the Ocean State’s MLL students were below basic math proficiency and 71% fell below reading proficiency standards. The proficiency gap in exhibited by eighth-grade data shows similar trends, both trailing the nation by about 12%.

According to RIDE report cards, South Kingstown schools are beating the trend, their MLL students scoring 51.1% proficient in reading (the only district majority proficient).

Near the middle of the pack, Johnston schools are only reporting 9.2% reading proficiency among the district’s MLL population. Central Falls fell to the bottom of the chart, with only 1.2% of MLL students reading proficient.

Coventry Schools topped the state’s math proficiency (for its MLL population) rankings, with 50% (the only district reaching the halfway mark).

“I have proposed legislation for the past several years that would create ‘Language Academies’ as a language-proficiency element to our public schools,” explained House Minority Leader, state Rep. Mike Chippendale. “In short, a child not proficient in English would be taught in the standard educational curriculum, but in a separate classroom or building where immersive language learning would occur while still encompassing the other classroom subjects.”

Chippendale serves as an Ex-Officio member of all House Committees and represents District 40, which includes Coventry, Foster and Glocester.

“Once a child tests proficient in English, they would simply matriculate back into the classroom or school that they would ordinarily attend,” he said. “This model has been successful across Canada, in New York City, and in several other US States and is extremely beneficial to the child that lacks the language skills, and the rest of the student body as a whole because the language barrier and the accompanying communication issues are removed from the classroom setting.”

Johnston’s MLL math scores measured at 5.5% proficient, and West Warwick ranked lowest, with just 1.8% scoring proficient. The town received Title III: Limited English Proficient Allocation for MLL during FY2023 in the amount of only $33,344, despite a precipitous surge in MLL student enrollment.

According to RIPEC, “other districts have seen fast growth in the number of (MLL) since 2015, including Cumberland, East Providence, Johnston, Newport, North Providence, and Warwick. Collectively, they saw their numbers nearly triple, from 656 to 1,763 between 2015 and 2023 and these districts now make-up 11.6% of all multilingual learners in the state”

Johnston Mayor Joseph M. Polisena Jr. suggested “simplicity” over complicated solutions.

“I’m not an educator, but from the little I do know, the best way to help MLL children is simplicity and unhurried learning,” Polisena explained last weekend. “First, shared reading, either in … large or small groups, may help. Second, it would be also be helpful to label everything in the classroom with a picture and a word. Third, implement tools and strategies like graphic organizers, word mats, sentence stems and sentence frames.”

The mayor suggested that a few changes in the classroom may go a long way in helping to accommodate the MLL population.

“Some strategies which are little less formal may help too,” Polisena argued in an emailed response. “Good seating charts that reduce disruption, learning students names in their native language (when I was a public defender I always wrote the clients phonetic spelling of their name next to their name and tried to pronounce it as best I could), interesting visualization of lessons that can keep all children, particularly MLLs, engaged. Lastly, maybe translanguaging can help so MLLs don’t feel forced for a full English answer and can try and use the translanguaging to fill in any gaps.”

Education Week defines “translanguaging” as “the ability to move fluidly between languages and a pedagogical approach to teaching in which teachers support this ability.”

Warwick Schools’ MLL students reached 7.8% reading proficient and 9% math proficient. Cranston Schools’ MLL population hit 7.3% reading proficient and 9.1% math proficient. Both city school districts lingered in the bottom half of the state’s public rankings for MLL performance.

“Rhode Island’s most recent state assessments similarly show that multilingual learners are failing to meet or exceed expectations in math or reading in alarming numbers,” according to RIPEC, basing their conclusions on data provided within RIDE Report Cards.

Statewide Change

The state only started providing funding for MLL, specifically, in 2017.

Over the past eight years, state funding for “high-cost multilingual learners was based on 10% of the state share of the per pupil core instructional amount but was also subject to appropriation,” according to the RIPEC report

In the latest state budget, however, the General Assembly made a pair of major changes to MLL funding.

Legislators “increased the formula factor to 15% of the per pupil core instructional amount and made the funding no longer subject to appropriation,” according to RIPEC. “These changes resulted in a large increase in categorical funding, with $16.8 million allocated to districts in FY 2024 ($1,169 per pupil), up from $4.5 million ($307 per pupil) in FY 2023.”

RIPEC recommends the state base MLL funding on “the most recent student data, and improve data collection efforts.

“Rhode Island is behind the curve when it comes to funding for multilingual learners,” said RIPEC President & CEO Michael DiBiase. “The dollars simply haven’t matched the growth in this student population, and despite substantial increases in state funds appropriated for the current fiscal year, Rhode Island still trails its neighbors and the nation by a wide margin. Multilingual learners make up a substantial and rapidly growing portion of our students, so the improvement of public education in Rhode Island hinges on their success.”


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