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Prince George's County Opening Special Schools For English Language Learners

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TC Williams International Academy in Alexandria, Virginia, has had some success with their Limited English Proficiency program.
Armando Trull/WAMU
TC Williams International Academy in Alexandria, Virginia, has had some success with their Limited English Proficiency program.

The Prince George's County school system will open two new high schools this August designed to meet the educational needs of immigrant students with limited English language skills. The Prince George's International High School and the International High School at Langley Park, as they will be called, are the first step in addressing a huge achievement gap for English Language Learners in the school system who are on the bottom rung of educational achievement and graduation rates.

The two schools are getting $3 million in seed money from a Carnegie Corporation grant. It was jointly awarded to the Prince George's County school system, the Latino non-profit CASA de Maryland and the International Network for Public Schools, an educational non-profit. But even as the recruitment process for teachers and students is underway, so is a push by some critics who question the school’s legality and fairness.

Serving the population or segregating it?

Largo High School will be the site for one of the International Schools. The 100 9th graders will share the building with the 1,100 youngsters who make up the Largo High student body.

Valerie White, president of the PTSA, points out the rundown condition of the school and complains that the only facilities improvements and new equipment will be for the English language learners of the CASA International Academy.

“They aren't investing in our school, they are just investing in their school. They say it’s a program, but it’s a school — a segregated school within a school — and it should be that way and I really don't think it’s going to go over well with our pupils, with our children. They don't understand; no one is explaining it to them."

White says the decision to place the International Academy at Largo High was announced as a fait-accompli with little community input.

The second CASA International school, which hasn’t been identified yet, will be a standalone facility in the Langley Park neighborhood of the county, where thousands of Central American immigrants live. It will also begin with 100 9th graders, five teachers and a principal. The selection will be by lottery, will not be mandatory, and only students who are English Language Learners under the age of 16 can apply. They will be drawn from the nearly 2,500 Limited English Proficiency students or LEPs throughout Prince George's County.

Less than a third are able to pass achievement tests and only 55 percent graduate, while the general student population scores around 77 percent in both these categories.

“Prince George's County is changing, and it's had an influx of Latino students and the school system has not changed as quickly to keep up with their educational need," says Odis Johnson, the Associate Chair of Education at Washington University. Until last year, he chaired the African American Studies Department at the University of Maryland.

“So now we're at a situation where we can continue down a path towards educational isolation, which is something that Latino students feel when they're in classrooms where they can't interact or fully engage with the instruction, where the teachers do not have the skills necessary to meet their educational needs or facilitate learning, and that has to be one of the most pernicious forms of segregation where you are actually in the context but totally isolated and unable to benefit from all that’s going around," Johnson says.

TC Williams International Academy teachers are highly trained to work with LEP students and work collaboratively to boost student achievement. Students and teachers are encouraged to work collaboratively. (Armando Trull/WAMU)

But Bob Ross, president of the Prince George's County branch of the NAACP, questions the legality of the CASA International Schools.

“Segregation was eliminated back in 1954. When you have two schools that are designed to deal with one group based around basically language as the criteria for the schools, than that’s a form of discrimination," Ross says. " It’s not about force, it’s not about choice, it’s about the law."

“The Prince George's County branch of the NAACP is not correct on the law," says Kevin Maxwell, CEO of Prince George's County Schools. He says there is legal precedent for these programs. “Lao vs Nichols in San Francisco said that San Francisco had an obligation to provide programming that would level the playing field for Chinese-American students because they were lagging behind and the educational outcomes that they were receiving were not appropriate."

“It appears the NAACP is looking at this as a black versus brown bodies in the classrooms issue, rather that one of meeting children’s needs," says Johnson, the education expert. He points to other school systems that have set up all-boys and all-girls schools as well as historically black institutions as proof that sometimes separate is equal.

The costs of a meaningful curriculum

TC Williams High School in Alexandria, Virginia, is one of 17 schools around the country that use the International Language Networks model. The intense attention to students, collaboration among highly-trained teachers, and a host of after school activities and internships for these students has paid off.

Of TC William’s Academy students, 87 percent are on track to graduate and less than 7 percent have dropped out. Graduation and dropout rates for this population are 68 and 23 percent in Virginia, respectively.

“Before this program, these international students did not have access to a meaningful curriculum and meaningful education," says Danielle Wierzbicki, the International Academy’s Leader or principal. “They're going to leave here with what they need to get their diploma and have access then to integrate into the American society and to have the opportunity for the American dream.”

But the NAACP’s Ross argues that achieving that access may be too costly for Prince George's County. The $1 million a year grant for the next three years will fund only a fraction of the operating and facilities budget for the two schools, and the public school system will need to pick up the rest of the $12 million tab. Ross questions the fiscal soundness of the plan when the school system is facing budget shortfalls.

“We have African American students that have the same needs as the population that they want to service, so we're saying create a program that’s inclusive," Ross says.

But school CEO Maxwell says many low-income African American students already receive additional educational support through 17 programs that limited English students can’t access.

“Relative to what goes forward for the Tech centers, for the Arts magnets, for the STEM magnets that we have, this is really not a large amount of money compared to some of the other programming that we have in place," Maxwell says.

But, the NAACP means to press on. Ross says that since Maxwell and the school system have not addressed his concerns, he will bring up the matter with County Executive Rushern Baker. A few years ago, Baker pushed a change in county law that allows him greater oversight over the school system and its CEO. Ross is meeting with Baker today and warns that the NAACP will file a lawsuit if the plan is not scrapped or significantly amended.

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