New grant boosting Vineyard ELL programming

The schools landed a grant that could total $1.5 million the next two years that will lead to new teachers, and professional development for ELL and special education departments.

Martha's Vineyard Regional High School — MVTimes

Martha’s Vineyard schools have landed a new grant intended to bring more English Language Learning teachers into the district and to boost professional development.

The school committee unanimously voted on Monday to accept a $100,000 grant through the Student Opportunity Act, which seeks to address disparities among specific student groups. But by getting this grant, the district will likely be able to receive two more substantial financial installments over the next two years, projected to total $1.5 million dollars.

The funding arrives as the administration recently reported a significant number of students that speak a different language at home other than English, like nearly 60 percent in the Tisbury School and nearly 30 percent of students at the high school; over 90 percent of ELL students Island-wide speak Portuguese as their home language. 

“This grant opportunity allows us to really look at having a more inclusive model for our English learners, while also benefiting our students with disabilities,” said English Language Learning program director Leah Palmer at Monday’s MVRHS School Committee meeting.   Palmer has been in charge of the program for the past 12 years, and wrote the grant proposal.

Forty-one other districts in Massachusetts were selected out of 84 applicants this year.

School finance manager Mark Friedman said that school districts that receive these awards can reapply for year 2 and year 3 funding. “It was competitive upfront,” Friedman said. “Getting the future year allocations are not going to be competitive, but we still have to reapply.”  

The Student Opportunity Act grant is awarded with the mission to implement co-teaching models for English Second Language / English Language Learner (ELL) students and special needs classrooms. 

Part of the Student Opportunities Act is intended to to close achievement gaps for English language learners, students with special needs, racial minorities, and the lowest socioeconomic students.

Nearly $700,000 could be available through the grant program for the 2023-2024 school year, and another $729,000 is estimated to be available for the 2024-2025 school year. 

The grant money will be used to hire a new ELL teacher at the high school and a new teacher for up-Island schools. Funding would also help professional development for new and existing teachers on a co-teaching model for both ELL and special-needs students. 

The plan is to have all teachers at Island schools learn about and integrate the co-teaching model into the classroom, as well as have access to a program at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education called the Universal Design for Learning.

“The premise with this grant is to build sustainability within a district, to really be able to support the co-teaching model,” Palmer said. “I truly believe with this type of professional development and support for staff and learning process, that we would have staff who have strong foundations in co-teaching and can move us forward.” 

Palmer worked closely with the principals of all Island schools to create a unified “vision” for the grant. She said that schools in different parts of the Island have different needs, with down-Island schools enrolling many English learners, and up-Island schools having a smaller percentage of English learners compared to students with special needs; down-Island schools have plenty of personnel, but no ability to give them the professional development to shift to a sustainable co-teaching model. 

“Everyone will be part of these trainings, and that’s where UDL [Universal Design for Learning] comes in – inclusive practices in the classroom,” Palmer said. “Overall this is about inclusive practices.” 

The co-teaching model will be a departure from the long running “pull-out” model used for years in Martha’s Vineyard schools, in which students who are struggling, either due to special needs or English language limitations, are “pulled out” of the main classroom and taught in a separate class. Palmer said the goal of the grant and co-teaching “keeps the kids all in the same classroom.” 

Newcomers and beginning level English learners will still receive the “pull out” model to receive direct English language development support to build a foundation, but for higher level English learners, co-teaching will allow a much more inclusive way of incorporating language development right into the classroom.

Palmer presented research that shows this model actually benefits all students, not just the ELL or special needs student.  

Palmer went on to give an example of what a co-taught classroom might look like, with one teacher explaining content, while another teacher functions in a more supportive role, checking in with individual students to see how they are absorbing the class material. She explained there are many different styles of co-teaching, like splitting the class into 2 groups.

“Research around success is really clear: Provide staff with a foundation of professional development support and co-planning,” Palmer said. “That’s what this grant is about: Building a foundation of knowledge and support for our staff so they can feel successful in this process and they have resources when they need them.” 

The co-teaching for English learners movement started in New York with Maria Dove and Andrea Hongsfield, with the two having published a book on the subject.

Committee member Skipper Manter congratulated Palmer “on getting that amount of money. That itself is miraculous.” 

Manter did express concerns about being able to spend $100,00 in three months before the end of the school year. The money awarded is for this fiscal year only, and any funding not spent before the end of the school year will be reabsorbed by the state.

But school officials were confident it could be done. 

New teachers hired with grant money will be under one year contracts, with their positions renewed each year, alongside annual reapplication for the grant. With the $100,000, Palmer and Friedman hope to be able to hire a teacher for the high school just for the remainder of the year, with that position terminating upon the end of the school year. 

Committee members felt it important that new hires be properly informed of the terms of the position, and not be misled. 

Others asked if the position would be funded in 2026, when the grant runs out. Palmer replied that she believed that would be the plan, “to build that sustainability.” 

Some committee members were not in favor of budgeting the position beyond the grant. “I don’t like being told it has to be absorbed into the budget when the grant runs out,” Manter said. “This has happened in the past. We have no idea what other obligations there may be at the time.” 

Superintendant Smith reminded Manter that the grant funded the positions. “Legally we don’t need your blessing on this, we want your blessing,” Smith said. “We actually want your vote on this because we want to be transparent in 2023 about something we may be asking for in 2026.”

Smith explained that he believed the island district was chosen as an experiment of sorts. 

“This is not the typical grant,” Smith said. “A strong likelihood as to why this was awarded – it was a highly competitive application process – was because we did use an evidence based program that the department of education is pushing. And because this co-teaching is one of their highlighted evidence based programs, that likely resulted in success in giving us this grant. I believe they’ll look to us to see what the efficacy is over the next 3 years.” 

In addition to the Student Opportunities Act, 4 other grants were awarded to the district, including two DESE grants related to special education programs in the amounts of $3,097 dollars and $38 dollars; a $5,000 grant from the Massachusetts service alliance organization to help fund existing efforts to complement a service learning initiative, pioneered by Kim Garrison; a $90,000 grant from the state elementary and secondary education department, specifically for the West Tisbury school to provide funding for year 2 of a summer learning program to help students with learning loss due to covid. And lastly, funds from Title 1 and Title 2a of the Elementary and Secondary Act in the amounts of $514 dollars and $711 dollars to be put towards all the Island schools.


  1. Congratulations to Leah Palmer and all our educators on being awarded this outstanding and much needed grant. Kudos to Leah for writing this grant that will help us develop a sustainable, systemic ELL/Special Ed program for our students.
    As a member of the MV school community, I am so proud of this much needed effort that will truly bring genuine inclusion thru a co-teaching model. This is long overdue.
    Thank you,
    Marge Harris, Island Educator

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