BY ALAN BURKE
---- — PEABODY — A possible civil rights violation is behind a new, three-year program to train teachers to help students whose first language is not English.
“We are a little bit on the hot seat,” said Francine Johnson, who heads the English Language Learners program in the Peabody Public Schools.
Alarmed by low test scores statewide for students with limited English, the U.S. Department of Justice complained to state education officials two years ago about inadequate training for teachers. The Justice Department views the lagging test scores as a possible civil rights violation, and has already intervened in Arizona and California after determining that those states violated the rights of their students, said Johnson.
In response, Johnson continued, the state has mandated the new teacher training program, which will be funded by the state, in schools throughout the commonwealth. No classroom time will be lost.
Citing her experience in Peabody, Johnson said that even some ELL students whose English is proficient, and who have graduated from language programs, aren’t keeping up when it comes to MCAS tests.
Johnson noted that statewide the population of students who are learning English has soared by 60 percent since 2000. In Peabody, she said, teachers deal with students speaking 15 foreign languages. The top four are Spanish, Portuguese, Albanian and Arabic.
“I think these kids are inspiring,” she added. “What they overcome is unbelievable.”
Speaking later, School Committeeman Jarrod Hochman expressed doubts about the program, and complained that programs mandated by the state and federal government often run afoul of agreements with the teachers’ union.
“We’ve gotten away from the local level on a lot of issues,” he said.
Colleague Beverley Griffin-Dunne said she doesn’t like government mandates, either, but “in this case the mandate needs to be followed.”
Griffin-Dunne said she has long advocated for more effort in teaching students with limited English.
“We were not meeting the minimal requirements,” she explained. “We are not providing adequate services to our students. ... We need to follow the law.”
Griffin-Dunne noted that Johnson’s work is highly regarded beyond Peabody, and she is active in training teachers from surrounding communities.