NEW BEDFORD — The Department of Justice announced a settlement with the city’s public schools on Thursday after an investigation that began in 2020 because of the district's struggles to communicate with limited English proficient parents, especially speakers of K'iché, an Indigenous Mayan language spoken by many of New Bedford's residents.

The Department of Justice (DOJ) said the district was cooperative but will continue monitoring and evaluating their interventions until 2025, “so that school staff do not assume K’iché speakers are native Spanish speakers based on their country of origin,” according to a DOJ statement.

The investigation found that some “programs and practices that were not fully compliant” with the Equal Educational Opportunities Act, a 1974 law that aims to ensure all students can participate in learning activities.

“Although we have been engaged in this work over the past several years,” said Dr. Sonia Walmsley, the district's director for Educational Access & Pathways, “we will expedite our implementation of the measures highlighted in this agreement to more quickly resolve the areas of improvement for our EL programs generally and especially our services for students and families who speak K’iché.”

There are 161 students in the district whose primary language is K’iché, according to a school district spokesperson. In total, there are 5,059 students, or 42% of students in the district, whose primary language is not English. That's a sharp increase over the last 10 years.

In 2013, there were 789 English Learner (EL) students. At the time, the district did not employ any English as a Second Language (ESL) teachers. This year there are 109 ESL teachers supporting more than 3,300 EL students, or about 31 EL students for each support teacher.


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“There wasn't an EL program,” Mayor Jon Mitchell said at last week’s School Committee meeting, referencing data from 2013. He praised Dr. Walmsley, who he credited with building the EL program. “It was just in time,” Mitchell said. “There's been an enormous influx [of EL students].”

The district now says that its more than 13,000 students speak 40 languages and represent 45 countries. Guatemala, where most K’iché speakers trace their heritage, is one of three countries that more than 150 New Bedford students claim. (Cape Verde and the Dominican Republic are the others.)

The DOJ findings will ensure that the EL program continues to grow in supporting both students and teachers.

According to most recent data, the EL program has shown mixed results. Each year students are measured on their English proficiency with an exam known as ACCESS. According to Dr. Walmsley, students are expected to advance one level each year until they become proficient, and then will exit the program.

Across the district, 40% of students made that expected progress. Many elementary schools performed well, including 81% of students at Taylor Elementary hitting their progress benchmarks.

But at New Bedford High School, only 9% of the 733 EL students made progress. At none of the district’s three middle schools — Keith, Normandin, and Roosevelt — did more than one-third of EL students make the expected progress.

At Whaling City, the district’s alternative high school, none of the 22 EL students made the expected progress.

Thomas Anderson

As part of the DOJ mandated changes, this year all ESL teachers will receive at least three hours of initial training, the DOJ settlement said, on the languages and communities represented within New Bedford, “including the K’iché language and K’iché community, and providing strategies and instructional enhancements to help students ... overcome language barriers.”

Training will continue until at least 2024, and the district will be required to conduct a longitudinal study tracking cohorts of students enrolled in Kindergarten, third grade, sixth, and ninth grades this year, including disaggregated data for K’iché speakers.

“This is an opportunity for us to continue to be even more effective and grow for the benefit of all our students,” said district Superintendent Thomas Anderson about the DOJ settlement.

Email Colin Hogan at chogan@petarenapro.com