Eye on the Small-Schools Movement: What Happens with ELLs?

By Mary Ann Zehr — May 14, 2007 1 min read
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Some of my sources have been telling me that I should look into how the break-up of large comprehensive high schools into small schools is affecting English-language learners. Well, Samual G. Freedman, a professor of journalism at Columbia University, has beaten me to doing some very concrete reporting on this topic. He wrote a piece that ran in the New York Times on May 9 focusing on how English-language learners apparently aren’t being served as well as they were before Columbus High School in the Bronx became part of the small-schools movement.

The story of the numbers alone is interesting. Three years ago, Mr. Freedman writes, Columbus was a traditional high school with 548 ELLs among its 3,491 students. Now, he says, the Columbus campus has 3,389 students--about the same as it had three years ago--but only 344 students are ELLs. And fewer than a third of those 344 students are in the small schools on campus, which don’t have to accept such students until after they’ve been operating for two years.

“So where did the missing 200 ELLs go?,” he writes. “Nobody at the department suggests that the number of immigrant students has suddenly dropped. ... And what is the quality of the English-as-a-second-language services they are receiving there?”

That last question is one that I’d like to put to a number of small-schools arrangements across the country.

Bethany Plett, a teacher of English as a second language who is getting a Ph.D in education at Texas A&M in College Station, also presented findings on this issue at the recent conference of Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages in Seattle. She contends that a requirement by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, a key funder of efforts to divide large high schools into smaller ones, that ELLs not be concentrated in one single small school after a break-up of a large school makes it harder for educators to address the needs of such students.

For more on how ELLs are being served--or not being served--by small schools in New York City, read a report published in 2006 by Advocates for Children of New York and the New York Immigration Coalition.

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