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    Sunday, April 14, 2024

    State bill would create advocates for immigrant, multilingual learners

    HARTFORD — Jon Garcia remembered being scared. His family left Aguada, Puerto Rico in 1998 and moved to Meriden where he was enrolled in a class for multilingual learners. He met Carlos and Julio Garcia, twins who had immigrated from Mexico City a year before. The boys quickly became friends as they had a last name and timid personality in common.

    Jon Garcia shared the story about his childhood friends during a public hearing last week to advocate for HB 5451, a new bill that would create an Advocate for Immigrant and Multilingual Learner Families at both the statewide Board of Education and certain local districts. This builds on other initiatives that would help support these families, such as a "Bill of Rights" for multilingual students that takes effect in July.

    "When I speak about this bill, I think of my friends Carlos and Julio and all of their struggles and lack of access to a support system that would allow them the same opportunity to succeed as I was given," Garcia said while speaking in favor of the bill as a member of the Connecticut Education Association.

    The bill was referred earlier this month to the Committee on Government Administration and Elections. If passed as is, it would require the Commissioner of Education to appoint a volunteer Advocate for Immigrant and Multilingual Learner Families who would speak for at least 10 minutes at every meeting starting in July. On a more local level, any Board of Education that has a student population bigger than 2 percent of immigrants or multilingual learners would have to appoint a volunteer advocate or create a nonvoting seat for them on the board.

    More than 54,000 students were identified as English Language Learners in the 2023-2024 school year, or about 11 percent of all students, according to data from EdSight, the state Department of Education data portal. This is nearly 20,000 more students than were enrolled in 2014-15, when they were about 6 percent.

    The bill received support from education advocacy organizations, such as the Center for Children's Advocacy, the School and State Finance Project and ConnCAN. The advocates said that creating an additional position would help improve parents' communication with the schools and improve outcomes for multilingual and immigrant students.

    Luis Ortiz, state grassroots manager for advocacy for the nonprofit ConnCAN, pointed to statistics from the annual Smarter Balanced Assessments that show that English Learners are significantly behind non-English learners in both English language arts and math.

    Because of this, he said that creating an additional position would be helpful so that families have assurance that they are being heard.

    "Immigrants and multilingual learners; we're not monolithic," he said. "Our issues and needs are definitely diverse, and I think you know expecting a body to be able to comprehend all of those needs is very cumbersome and unrealistic so we have had experience where parents have felt left out."

    While Jon Garcia was learning English, he remembered that his friends' parents did not speak English. Their dad had to work two jobs to provide for the family while their mother stayed in Mexico. As a result, the parents had no communication with the school and were not able to be the support system at home that Carlos and Julio needed to succeed.

    Instead, Garcia had a strong support system and went on to enroll in AP classes, graduate from Platt in 2007 and apply for financial aid at UConn. He graduated with a full-ride scholarship in 2011 and now teaches music in Wilton.

    "If we want our multilingual learners to be successful and educated contributing members of our society, we need to have someone advocating for them in the state level," he said.

    Commissioner of Education Charlene Russell-Tucker was not able to attend the public hearing but submitted written testimony that cautioned against giving specific time to any one demographic group.

    She said the State Board of Education never limits the number of public speakers at any of their meetings and offers interpretation services during public comment if they are notified in advance.

    "The public, inclusive of Multilingual Learner and immigrant students and families, have the opportunity to speak and advocate during public comment sessions that occur during each State Board of Education meeting, and are common in most, if not all local board of education meetings," she wrote.

    Instead, she said that the department has a dedicated education consultant position that advocates on behalf of multilingual learners and immigrant students, as well as a director of equity and language. She also highlighted "Parent Bill of Rights" guidelines recently released by the Department that give a general guide for multilingual learner families to have equal access to education.

    The Government Administration and Election Committee has yet to vote on HB 5451.

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