In New London, English becomes a student's ticket to graduation
New London — For the eighth-graders who become freshmen this fall and the teachers getting ready to instruct them, the countdown has begun on what could be one of the most significant changes to public education in the city's history.
Starting in 2015, all New London High School students will be required to know American English, and demonstrate it, before they receive their diplomas on graduation day.
The Board of Education Thursday unanimously approved the policy, believed to be the first of its kind in Connecticut.
It's a policy sure to challenge a school district whose student body includes immigrants from 28 countries and whose students have traditionally performed poorly on standardized tests.
Superintendent of Schools Nicholas A. Fischer, who championed the change, called it an essential part of the charge given to him when he was hired in 2009: to raise standards in the district.
"We know from colleges and employers, that our students are going to have to know how to read and write in English if they are going be successful," Fischer said in an interview Friday.
Students will be provided with several options to demonstrate their competence in English, and they will have until the age of 21 to meet the requirement.
Specifically, the policy states that if a student achieves "goal," the highest possible level on the reading portion of the Connecticut Academic Performance Test (CAPT), that would satisfy the requirement.
Students statewide take the test in the 10th grade, and the first time the CAPT would count toward the requirement would for students taking the 2013 edition of the test.
Only 16 percent of New London High 10th grade students made "goal," according to the 2010 CAPT results and 55 percent were "proficient," the second-best score level on the test.
If a student fails to score "goal," on the CAPT after a second try, the policy allows the school and students additional chances.
Students could also pass a reading test administered by the Northwest Education Association and a writing exam from Pearson, the international education company.
If a student repeatedly fails the tests, Fischer said that student would be permitted to submit standardized portfolios to demonstrate competency.
Accommodations will be made for special education students on an individual basis and for students who are identified as English Language Learners, based on proficiency and the amount of time they have lived in the United States.
Elizabeth Garcia Gonzalez, executive director of Centro de la Comunidad and a former school board president, endorsed the policy but said she has "mixed feelings" about it.
"It's good that we are raising standards, and I don't see a problem with testing," Garcia Gonzalez said. "But I have concerns about a student who comes into the high school at 11th grade and can't speak the language."
Garcia Gonzalez said that younger native Spanish speakers who begin learning English in elementary school or even the middle school should be able to meet the requirement.
But she also said attention should be paid to students whose families are not strong in English and who might have difficulty getting extra help at home.
"(Students) need to be immersed," Garcia Gonzalez said. "When you graduate, you should know the language."
Fischer said the districts' lawyers reviewed the policy to ensure that it did not violate state education laws.
State Department of Education spokesman Tom Murphy said Friday that the state does not have a similar English requirement, but that districts have the authority to exceed minimum state standards.
"It's a statement about what New London expects of its graduates," Murphy said.
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