In 2002, Massachusetts voters affirmed a ballot initiative requiring that public school students be taught all subjects (with limited exceptions) in English and be placed in English Language classrooms. As a result districts had to change the way they educated students who are English Language Learners (ELL).  Districts can support ELL students through Sheltered English Instruction (SEI) classrooms, two-way bilingual classrooms, or English Language acquisition services.

First through twelfth grade students who are English Language Learners (ELL) must be placed in an SEI classroom. There are two exceptions to this rule: If the student is in a two-way bilingual program or granted a waiver. Kindergarteners may be placed in SEI classroom, a two-way bilingual classroom, or in the mainstream classroom with assistance in English language.

If a student assigned to an SEI classroom is performing well academically and can understand English instruction, he or she can transition into a mainstream classroom with services. If the student is not ready to enter a mainstream classroom after a year, the school will make a recommendation for what they think is best for the student. This might be another year in a SEI classroom or entering a two-way bilingual program. If the parent/guardian objects and wants to appeal the recommendation, they may do so. There is no “cap” or maximum number of years a student can remain in the SEI program. Many students will be placed into a SEI program for only a year, but they may stay in the SEI program for longer if needed.

A parent may seek a waiver granting them permission for their child to not be placed into an SEI program. This is granted when the principal and staff believe that an alternative course of education would be better suited for the student’s academic progress and acquisition of English. In order to be granted a waiver, the parent must apply annually by visiting their child’s school and providing written informed consent.

  • Students under the age of ten are eligible to apply for a waiver only after 30 days in an SEI classroom. The waiver must be approved by the principal and the superintendent.
  • Students over the age of ten are eligible to apply for a waiver without having spent any time in an SEI classroom. The waiver needs to be approved by the principal.

Once a student has been granted a waiver, he or she may continue to receive language support services as needed.

ELL Definitions

English Language Learner (ELL)A child who does not speak English or whose native language is not English, and who is not currently able to perform ordinary classroom work in English. A student is considered ELL until she or he can meaningfully participate in a mainstream classroom without language supports.

Limited English Proficient (LEP)Used interchangeably with English Language Learner.

Sheltered English Instruction (SEI)Program where all the materials and teaching is done in English with a curriculum designed for students who are English Language Learners.

Two-way Bilingual classroomClassroom that provides instruction in English and a second language. Classrooms are composed of both native and non-native English speakers. Since instruction is in both languages, both groups of students become proficient in both languages.


A parent may decide to “opt-out” of the SEI program for their child even without the approval of school or district staff. To “opt out” of the program, districts may require parents to sign a consent form documenting their decision.

For more information about English Language Learner Education in Massachusetts, visit this website.

Advocacy Tip – Natural Language Accommodation

  • Students should receive guidance and counseling in the student’s primary language.
  • School notices must be written in the primary language of the home (this includes disciplinary notices).
  • Students and parents have a right to have an interpreter at disciplinary hearings as well as special education meetings.



Federal and state laws require that LEP students be assessed annually to measure their proficiency in reading, writing, listening, and speaking English, as well as the progress they are making in learning English.

All student identified as LEP who attend Massachusetts public schools (grades K-12) are required to take the Massachusetts English Proficiency Assessment (MEPA) which measures reading and writing skills as well as the Massachusetts English Language Assessment-Oral (MELO) which measures listening and speaking skills.