A Colorado District Tries to Fix How It Identifies ELLs

By Mary Ann Zehr — April 15, 2008 2 min read
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At the start of this school year, the Montezuma-Cortez School District in Colorado had 855 English-language learners. By January, the number of ELLs had dropped to 320. I read this bit of news in the Cortez Journal (via Colorin Colorado) last month and wondered: How could this be?

I chatted by telephone with Donetta Dehart, the English-language-acquisition coordinator for the Montezuma-Cortez school system, and a couple of officials from the Colorado department of education. They told me a demographic shift hadn’t occurred. Rather, the 2,800-student district, after being audited by state officials, merely revamped how it identified English-language learners.

To me, this is a lesson in what can happen if a school district doesn’t pay enough attention to the identification process. “They were identifying kids willy-nilly,” said Morgan Cox, a senior consultant for the department of education’s English-language-acquisition unit, who worked with Ms. Dehart to shape up the procedures.

After the state officials pointed out in an audit that the district needed to improve how it identified ELLs, Ms. Dehart, an elementary school teacher who had training in how to work with ELLs, was hired for her current post. Ms. Dehart was charged with fixing the identification process.

Let me stop here to say that right along, more than 90 percent of the district’s ELLs have been Native Americans. Most are Navajo or Ute.

“They were overidentifying,” said Ms. Cox, “They had people who weren’t trained at looking at home-language surveys.” She said that a lot of Native Americans who couldn’t read on grade level were labeled as ELLs. She said the educators doing the identifying were confusing a lack of literacy with a lack of language ability.

One of the changes that made the biggest difference in the number of ELLs was the district’s updating of its home-language survey, according to Ms. Dehart. School districts are required to have parents fill out a home-language survey if a language other than English is spoken at home. Ms. Dehart helped the district to change the survey so it focuses on whether a child’s primary language is something other than English. Only children whose primary language isn’t English are now further assessed to see if they are eligible for English-acquisition services.

Unfortunately, said Ms. Dehart, the drop in the number of ELLs means less funding for her school district, because funding for programs to serve ELLs is distributed on a per-pupil basis.

“The kids’ needs haven’t changed,” she noted. “We’re just not calling [some of] them ELLs any more.”

See one of my earlier posts, which has ended up being one of the most popular posts on this blog, “What’s in a Home-Language Survey?”

A version of this news article first appeared in the Learning the Language blog.