The ‘first rough draft’ covering Island schools

Superintendent Richie Smith engaging with parents of ELL students. —Charles M. Sennott

In the bright, unforgiving light of the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School cafeteria, a cluster of a dozen parents — all immigrants from Brazil — and a handful of teachers who work in the English Language Learning program were gathered around Superintendent Richie Smith on a recent night.

It was not an easy conversation. Some hard feelings were being expressed by some of the parents whose children are in ELL programs, and who felt like they needed to be heard. At the March 11 meeting, parents shared that they were concerned about a Feb. 1 Edgartown School committee meeting. At that meeting, more than 200 parents gathered in person and online, vented frustrations with school leadership, and suggested that ELL programs were draining resources, resulting in a steady stream of parents pulling their children out of the schools. There were worries expressed of an “us versus them” culture emerging. And these Brazilian parents were sharing that many of them found the divisive climate “very worrying,” as one parent put it on this night. Some of them said the reporting in The MV Times had opened their eyes to this tension in the schools.        

I was at this meeting because I had been invited to share a presentation on The MV Times’ new translation service into Portuguese for the rising Brazilian population. We are doing this in hopes that parents who do not read in English can be more informed. We believe this translation service is a relatively small gesture, but it is a huge opportunity to give members of the Brazilian community a chance to know more about what is going on on the Island, and particularly in the schools. Several of them referred specifically to a Feb. 7 news story titled “Frustrations rising at Edgartown School.” 

I also showed a Feb. 15 editorial that The MV Times had run under the headline “Our diversity is our strength, especially in schools,” and illustrated how the translation service made it possible to instantly translate the article, and provide the parents a chance to read and follow the issues.

Smith nodded, but also added a response to the reported frustration of parents in Edgartown over ELL programs: “With all due respect to The MV Times, there were things that could have been made more clear” in the Feb. 7 article.

“It’s not that it was inaccurate, it is that it was incomplete,” Smith added. 

I appreciated the candor, and used the opportunity to respond that journalism is often by definition incomplete. I asked for a translation of the oft-quoted phrase, “Journalism is the first rough draft of history.”

I told the gathering that we plan to stay on the story and keep covering it layer by layer, always trying our best to convey for the community an accurate picture of what is admittedly a very complex issue. That’s our job.  

This gathering was only the second time that the English language learning advisory council, as this small group called itself, had actually met. They formed just after the Edgartown School committee meeting, and in many ways, they shared with me that it took shape in reaction to that meeting, and what the parents there had to share. They said it was the first time they had ever had a translator available to them as parents at an official school gathering, and the first time they had ever had a chance to meet directly with the superintendent.

It was in the immediate aftermath of a packed Edgartown School committee meeting in early February that brought to the surface challenges in how the school system is trying to balance meeting the needs of all of its students. 

On this evening, the parents and teachers were all clustered around a table sharing coffee and cookies and a delicious Brazilian-style casserole. They spoke candidly about the challenges the school is facing, and the frustrations and concerns of some of the parents, particularly those with children who are speaking Portuguese in the home and who require English language learning. And they also talked more broadly about how the Brazilian community can find a seat at the table on school committees.

“How do we get our voices heard?” asked Merioka Nunes, who has two children in the school system enrolled in ELL, and who wanted to know about the process of running for the school committee. 

She was informed by Smith that state law requires that only U.S. citizens can serve on a school committee, but she was also assured that the ELL advisory committee was a town body that played an important advisory role. Smith encouraged them all to be part of growing and strengthening the advisory board. He also suggested that there is a new generation of Brazilian adults who were born on the Island and who are citizens, and who should be encouraged to run.

An ESL teacher, Carlos Trindade, whom the school district recruited from Brazil, said in both languages, “Even though we are not allowed on the school committees, you are listening to us and hearing our voice.”

“We are grateful for the good intention,” he added.

The meeting was going late, past 9:30 pm, and it felt like a night to remember. It was a good night. It marked what several in attendance said was one of the first times that parents from the Brazilian community were invited into the schools as part of an official forum, and provided a translator. It was, they said, one of the first times that they felt truly heard.

Leah Palmer, the head of ELL programs in the Vineyard public schools, said, “The idea that will really stay with me is the idea we do not always have the complete story. We know we all need to listen and talk to those whom we normally don’t talk with. What will make the story complete and what will make our community complete is all about everyone being included.” 

Superintendent Smith was an engaged and patient listener, and made good points and genuinely sought to help clarify the situation. He also reminded the parents that there was an audit underway to assess the culture in the schools, and he said that the audit will hopefully provide data that can shed new light on many of the issues they discussed.

For us here at The MV Times, the story is very much not complete; the pending results of the audit is a story we plan to cover, and it will provide another important opportunity to write the next chapter of that “first rough draft of history.”


  1. Our Brazilian neighbors are an asset, not a liability. Imagine if we taught Portuguese in our schools from kindergarten onward. The kids could practice this language every single day, and graduate high school truly bilingual. It would be a leg-up for the college bound and a big plus for those who will run the businesses and be the skilled tradespeople of the future. We are wasting a great opportunity.

      • Or imagine if we taught all kids to be bilingual every day from Kindergarten onward? How smart would that be?

        Or better still, teach only in the Island’s native language.

      • John, those children are learning English by immersion. Probably a pretty painful experience. Thankfully our school system treats them with compassion.

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