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Recent Immigrants Shut Out of Elite High Schools

Updated 3:32 p.m., 06-14-18

While Baltimore’s schools are losing students every year, there is one population that is growing rapidly: students whose first language isn’t English. But many of those students are shut out of the elite city high schools.

Now, a group of Latinx students at Baltimore City College is trying to change that.

The group, called SOMOS, first approached City Council members in March last year, then began meeting with school district officials this spring. They point to cases like that of Samreen Sheraz and her twin brother, Samarkhawaja, who arrived in Baltimore last year from Sri Lanka speaking Urdu, the language of their native Pakistan and were enrolled in an ESOL—English for Speakers of Other Languages--program.

This year, Samreen was the valedictorian of her class at Vanguard Middle School and her brother had the second highest grades in their class. But they weren’t accepted at Baltimore City College High School, the magnet high school they wanted to attend together.

"I felt really sad because I really wanted to go to City," Samreen said.

She and Samarkhawaja say a teacher told them that while they had glittering science and math scores their low English scores on standardized tests they took in seventh grade held them back.

But Samreen and her brother never even took the test. Like a number of ESOL students they got an exemption from the English portion because they were recent arrivals. It wasn’t until later that SOMOS students figured out that students who were exempted from the English test essentially got zeros for those tests, pulling down their composite scores.

"The math just wasn’t working. There were hundreds of points missing," said Franca Muller-Paz a faculty sponsor for SOMOS. "It wasn’t until we had our first meeting between SOMOS and the school district that it became clear that when ESOL teachers were told that their students could exempt certain standardized tests that those exemptions were actually being replaced with zeroes."

Zach Taylor, an ESOL teacher at Commodore John Rogers Middle School, says there is “no place” for kids who are learning English rapidly in how the composite scores work.

"They don’t take into account that there are these gifted learners who actually can make giant progress," he said.

According to school system statistics, ESOL students make up 6.6 percent of the student population, a number that has doubled since 2011. Most of them are clustered in two high schools; Patterson High in Highlandtown and Digital Harbor in Federal Hill. Meanwhile, only 0.3 percent of City College students—about four kids--are in the ESOL program. The figures are about the same at Baltimore Polytechnic Institute.

SOMOS students say their efforts to change that, with the city council and the school board, haven’t panned out.

"They have repeatedly said that they recognize that it was a problem. But they weren’t doing anything," said Carolina Beretta, a junior at City and one of the SOMOS members in on the negotiation. "So it’s kind of like okay if you recognize the problem, then why haven’t you come up with solutions or come up with some type of alternative way to get around it?"

Scarleth Gutierres-Aleman, another SOMOS student, says they thought they presented a reasonable plan to school officials for an alternative application to magnet schools for ESOL students.

"What we would ask from them would be recommendation letters, an essay, to see their grades, so that we would see if they would benefit City," she said. "We wouldn’t want to bring just anyone in because we wouldn’t want them to feel overwhelmed."

Alison Perkins-Cohen, city schools’ chief of staff, says educators are in the midst of a review of their entire school choice program with a team from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and they have forwarded the SOMOS students’ ideas to that team.

"What we’re going to do is engage with them going forward as we engage with this MIT professor and allow them to talk to this MIT professor and this MIT team," she said.

Meanwhile, they are updating composite scores using standardized tests taken in eighth grade, which could lead to changes in some students’ eligibility for schools like City and Poly.

Perkins-Cohen said they’ll "reach out to students whose eligibility has changed and are now eligible for these criteria entrance schools."

An earlier version of this story stated incorrectly that it could take two years to resolve the ESOL students' issue. The school system's effort to revamp its entire school choice program could take two years. 

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