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Richmond Public Schools Says 800 English Learners Weren't Counted

RPS Chief Academic Officer Tracy Epp discussed the undercounting of English Language Learners Monday night.
RPS Chief Academic Officer Tracy Epp discussed the undercounting of English Language Learners Monday night. (Photo: Megan Pauly)

Monday night, Richmond Public Schools discussed an internal audit that found around 800 students who should have been counted as English Language Learners (ELL) were not.

Deanna Fierro is a parent to one RPS student and an advocate for ESL students. She and a group of other parents recently filed a federal complaint with the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights against the district alleging problems with the process of accounting for English Language Learners.

“I'm just trying to make sure that the urgency that this situation requires is put onto the situation and that something actually happens and done quickly,” Fierro said. “So that our students can begin the new school year having the services that by law are required to be given to them.”

The district says they’re not sure how long the students have been undercounted. RPS Chief Academic Officer Tracy Epp said the number of EL students that teachers were serving was more than the district’s last count had originally indicated, resulting in teachers being overwhelmed with a high volume of EL students. Epp believes the unaccounted students come from underreporting in the district’s database system, Aspen.

“The absence of streamlined procedures and processing across 44 schools is one of the things that leads to underreporting,” Epp said Monday night.

Richmond's Director of Academic Supports Tyra Harrison told WCVE in an interview Thursday that she first discovered that the numbers weren't right after a meeting with teachers in October. The teachers asked for more support for students.

"And their concern was...wow, we've had an influx of students," Harrison said. "We're not able to ensure that we are doing this the right way." 

Harrison compared the numbers of students teachers told her they were serving to figures from a September point-in-time student count that's submitted to the Virginia Department of Education every year to determine state and federal funding allocations to school divisions across the state. 

"And the numbers [teachers reported to her] were huge," Harrison said. While the district couldn't confirm exact staffing ratios for ESL teachers and students, a draft ESL manual the district has developed to help train teachers suggests a ratio of not more than 51 students per teacher. 

The manual also shows 95% of the district's English learners speak Spanish, and over 80% have lived in the United States for less than a year. That means the district would not only qualify for additional state funding as a result of the undercounting, but also federal funding. According to the Virginia Department of Education, districts can receive supplemental funding for things like tutoring help through the Immigrant Children and Youth federal grant. 

As for state funding, Virginia’s Standards of Quality provide 17 state-funded staff positions for every 1,000 students identified as having limited English proficiency. That means the district missed out on funding for 12 staff positions. 

Virginia Department of Education (VDOE)  data shows 2,041 English Language Learners were reported in the last count, compared to 2,388 the year prior. Based on those figures, the district received close to $2,409,000 in state funds for FY19 and FY20 combined, and just over $270,000 in federal funding for English Language Learners.

Anne Forrester was one of two EL teachers at Boushall Middle School for the upcoming 2019-2020 school year to speak about the issue at Monday night’s school board meeting. She says Boushall has an estimated 400 EL students.

“I would like to challenge you to think more honestly and thoroughly when you are requesting more funding from the VDOE about what our EL students need because more ESL [English as a Second Language] teachers is only a start," said Forrester.

School board member Jonathan Young said people need to be held accountable for this issue.

“First with transcripts, now ESL. What’s next?” Young said, referring to this situation and a spring transcript audit that impacted the number of RPS seniors graduating on time.

Superintendent of Richmond Public Schools Jason Kamras admitted during Monday’s meeting that the district had done a disservice to RPS students and teachers.

“We hope to receive the funding that our kids deserve so that we can have the teachers and the support that they deserve,” Kamras said.

RPS plans to hire the 12 new ESL positions as soon as possible. Kamras said Thursday he's using existing funds to hire them so they're in place before the upcoming school year starts.

"We don't want to have empty classrooms or have teachers with huge numbers of ESL kids like we had last year," Kamras said. 

In addition to the new ESL teachers, the district is hiring three central office staff to support English Language Learners. Previously, there's been only on person downtown overseeing ESL services. the district says they've also doubled staffing at a Southside welcome center that's used to help English learners families register their kids for classes. 

WCVE intern Brianna Scott and reporter Megan Pauly contributed to this story.

This is a developing story.

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