Clustering ELLs in Schools by Languages

By Mary Ann Zehr — February 13, 2009 2 min read
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I learned recently that Amherst Regional Public Schools in Massachusetts clusters its English-language learners in four different elementary schools according to the children’s home language. In a blog post, Catherine A. Sanderson, a member of the school committee for that district, explained that one elementary school has a concentration of Spanish-speaking students, another of Chinese-speaking students, another of those who speak Khmer, and yet another of children who speak Korean.

About 260 of the district’s 4,000 students, by the way, are English-language learners.

Here’s an excerpt from Sanderson’s blog:

So, why do we cluster kids by language? This decision was driven in part by cost-efficiencies, meaning it is easier to have kids who speak the same language work with a single teacher. It has also meant that it is easier to make sure that Crocker (the school with the highest % of ELL students and families) has staff who are bilingual and the resources needed to translate school materials that get sent home into Spanish. However, it is not clear whether this plan (which requires some kids to be bused out of their home district—42 ELLs right now are transported, plus another 13 former ELLs) will continue.

I’d never heard of such a policy, so I called up Marta Guevara, who directs programs for ELLs in Amherst, to find out how it came about.

She said the pattern of clustering by language group is left over from when elementary schools offered transitional bilingual education before the method was greatly curtailed by a ballot measure approved by Massachusetts voters in 2002. The district strongly encouraged ELLs before 2002 to attend a school that offered a bilingual program in their home language. One school offered bilingual education in Spanish, in addition to English, another in Chinese, and so forth. The district transported students to the school that enrolled others who shared their home language, and it still does, though parents do have the option to send their children to the school in their neighborhood as well.

ELLs now receive instruction in English, but schools still tend to have a concentration of teachers and staff who speak a particular language other than English.

Guevara, who is new in her position this year, said district administrators are re-examining the policy now because of the cost of transporting some ELLs to schools outside their neighborhoods. In addition, she said, she’s concerned about how one of the schools, the one with Spanish-speaking students, has many more children from low-income working-class families than is the case with the school that has many children who are Chinese-speaking and tend to be the children of college professors. (The Khmer and Korean groups are now so small, she noted, that the clustering isn’t really an issue.)

“It’s not fair to have all the poor kids in one school,” Guevara said.

If any other school districts out there also have students clustered in different schools according to language groups, and not just because the schools are located in a particular neighborhood where people of one nationality tend to live, I’d like to learn about it.

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