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Baltimore students learning English say they still don’t have a fair shot at the city’s top schools

Students with SOMOS, a student group at Baltimore City College, prepare their comments ahead of a meeting with district officials about equity in admissions for the city's top high schools.
Students with SOMOS, a student group at Baltimore City College, prepare their comments ahead of a meeting with district officials about equity in admissions for the city's top high schools. (Thalia Juarez/Baltimore Sun)
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BALTIMORE — As eighth-graders across the city vie for spots in Baltimore's best high schools, student leaders say the district's admission process still puts classmates learning English at a disadvantage — two years after students first flagged the problems.

Students Organizing a Multicultural and Open Society ­(SOMOS), a student group at Baltimore City College High School, says the way the district determines eligibility for its most selective schools makes it more difficult for students whose second language is English to win entrance. As a result, although English learners make up about 7 percent of Baltimore students as a whole, they constitute less than 1 percent of students at schools such as City College, Baltimore Polytechnic Institute, Western High School and Paul Laurence Dunbar High School.

Baltimore City Public Schools officials argue that they have taken steps to support English learners but that evaluating entrance criteria will take time and will be part of a broader examination of how students are accepted into the most selective schools.

“We need to look at the whole choice process for the entire district,” said Tina Hike-Hubbard, chief of communications and community engagement. “I personally am concerned that we need to fix it for the entire district and think about how we create equity in a better way for all of our kids.”

While SOMOS agrees, it says the district has not responded with urgency or adopted a concrete solution to address the disparities.

“I don’t want to graduate knowing that so many kids behind me, so many kids who are still coming into middle school, are not going to have a fair system,” said Star Camano-Flores, a City College senior who was a sophomore when SOMOS raised the matter to the district and City Council in March 2017.

SOMOS students argue that the formula — a score made up of students’ standardized test scores in English and math, overall grades and attendance — to determine eligibility into “entrance criteria” schools is creating this disparity.

The calculation varies by school, but students who want to get into City College and Polytechnic Institute need significantly higher composite scores to be admitted.

In 2018, SOMOS discovered that some English learners had received low composite scores despite having high grades.

The district promised the students it would look into the issue, and an internal review determined that recently arrived students who were exempt from taking the English portion of the standardized test had instead received zeros, pulling down their composite scores and ruling out any chances of attending a highly selective school.

The district reevaluated the scores of eighth-grade students learning English and determined that 24 students were eligible to attend highly selective schools. Samreen Sheraz and her twin brother, Samarkhawaja, were two of those students.

“I was sitting in my room every day crying,” said Samreen, who was shocked when she was rejected from City College, despite being valedictorian of her class. Samarkhawaja had the second-highest grades.

English learners represent one of the fastest-growing segments of public school enrollment in Maryland, according to research done by the University of Maryland College of Education.

And while enrollment has declined in the city’s school system, the immigrant population has grown. Since 2011, the number of English learners more than doubled to 6,000 students from about 2,500, according to district data.

The majority of high school English learners attend two schools where language services are bolstered: Patterson High School, where they make up about 35 percent of the student population, and Digital Harbor High School, where they make up about 21 percent of students.

According to Hike-Hubbard, this is where parents are choosing that their students attend and refutes the notion that attending schools such as Patterson or Digital will not lead to college.

But for some parents, understanding how to navigate the high school choice process might be difficult.

“I think if there is a precedent that students [learning English] are going to be able to get into City, to Poly, to Western, then families are going to want to send their students here,” said Franca Muller Paz, a teacher at City College and adviser for SOMOS students. “To think that just because they don’t speak English well enough, they don’t get the opportunity to be here — that felt deeply unfair.”

After the students shed light on the issue, the district now reevaluates recently arrived students based on teacher recommendations using scores from another test, known as i-Ready, according to Lara Ohanian, director of differentiated learning in the Office of Teaching and Learning in Baltimore City Public Schools. This coming school year, the district plans to continue this process, Ohanian said.

However, the students say using the i-Ready exam score isn’t a solution because the exam is meant to track academic progress, doesn’t allow for accommodations — such as a bilingual dictionary — like other exams used, and students aren’t told before taking the exam that this test could affect their ability to get into a high-quality school.

Using the student’s latest ­i-Ready scores ensures a chance to improve their score as their language improves during the school year, Ohanian said.

In a recent meeting with ­SOMOS, district officials proposed that they solve this issue by administering the assessment in a more “high-stakes environment” and provide bilingual dictionaries in the district’s most common languages and an interpreter.

However, the students and some teachers argue this solution doesn’t solve the issue of English proficiency being a barrier to access these top schools.

And while most families find out in March what schools have accepted their student, families of students learning English who use i-Ready results don’t find out until the summer. By that time, some families will have already made the decision to move out of the city, Paz said.

The students have proposed various solutions, including keeping the composite score system but giving English learners the test in their native language and in English to get a better understanding of their academic capabilities. But school officials say few tests are available in other languages, and if they are, Spanish is the only other choice.

— Baltimore Sun

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