Federal

Calif. Poised to Spotlight ELLs Stalled in Schools

By Lesli A. Maxwell — September 18, 2012 7 min read
Sarah Rockey, a teacher at Tracy High School in California’s Central Valley, works with 9th grader Kim Placencia in the school’s Academic Language and Support class, or ALAS. District educators created the class to teach formal, academic English skills to English-learners who have been stuck at the same proficiency level for years.

California is poised to become the first state to unmask the extent to which English-language learners languish in public schools for years without ever reaching fluency.

Under a measure that received broad, bipartisan support from the legislature, the state education department would be required to break out and report data annually on long-term English-learners—tens of thousands statewide—for every school district. The measure would also create a common, statewide definition for long-term ELL students. Students at risk of becoming long-term ELLs would also be flagged.

The legislation is awaiting action from Gov. Jerry Brown, a Democrat, who has until Sept. 28 to decide whether to sign the bill.

“At its heart, this is a bill that finally makes these kids visible,” said Shelly Spiegel-Coleman, the executive director of Californians Together, a research and advocacy group based in Long Beach. It brought the issue of long-term English-learners to light two years ago with a report that was the first to put a number on just how many such students were in the state’s public schools.

That study found that 59 percent of secondary school English-learners in the state fit the definition of a long-term English-learner: a student in grades 6-12 who has been enrolled in American schools for more than six years, has been stuck at the same level of English proficiency for two or more years as measured by the state’s proficiency exam, and scores poorly on California’s yearly test of English/language arts.

Across the K-12 spectrum, roughly 1.5 million students enrolled in public schools in California—about one in four—are English-language learners, the largest such population of any state.

Margarita Calderón, a professor emerita of education and educational research at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, has worked with the New York City public schools on identifying and working with long-term English-learners there. She said that if California adopted the statewide policy on such students, “it would be an important development for the whole field.

“We need more states and cities to take this work on and to stop lumping these kids all together,” she said. “Their needs are very different.”

Districts Lead the Way

If the legislation is signed into law, it will come as momentum for tackling the problem of long-term ELLs has been building in a small number of districts across California.

Rattled by their own data revealing that large numbers of English-learners had been stuck at low or intermediate levels of language proficiency and were some of the lowest-achieving students, districts such as Tracy in the Central Valley and Anaheim in Orange County have recently created middle and high school courses that are designed to address the specific needs of long-term ELLs.

Chief among the sources of their learning gaps: a lack of formal, academic language and long-standing disengagement from school.

In another ALAS classroom in the district, 7th grader David Ortega focuses on his class work at Earl Williams Middle School.

“The response from districts across the board has been, ‘Oh my goodness, you’re right—we’ve got to do something about this,’ ” said Laurie Olsen, the researcher who wrote the Californians Together study on long-term English-learners. The group is scheduled to publish a follow-up report from Ms. Olsen this week that highlights four California districts where efforts are under way to improve instruction and outcomes for long-term ells.

“The energy and creativity is really encouraging,” she said.

But Ms. Olsen said that without a statewide policy defining long-term English-learners and a reporting requirement that separates them from the larger ELL category, California schools will fall short of making real progress with such students. Some districts won’t act, she said, until it becomes “part of what they are expected to do.”

“That’s why the legislation is important, because right now what’s happening is haphazard, and it’s not of the quality and coherence we need in order to see real, systemic improvement,” she said.

To move the legislation forward, proponents had to agree to remove more-aggressive provisions that would have required districts to incorporate strategies to address long-term ELLs in school improvement plans and send notifications to parents of students who were at risk of becoming long-term English-learners, Ms. Spiegel-Coleman said.

Getting approval for any legislation that would be seen as imposing a new mandate or additional costs on districts has been virtually impossible in California, where the fallout from the recession has hit particularly hard.

The California education department took no official position on the bill, but Karen Cadiero-Kaplan, who heads the agency’s English-learner division, said the efforts already under way in individual districts would ultimately bring about more improvement for long-term ELLs.

“If we, as a department, had been prescribing this, I’m not sure we would be seeing the type of creative thinking and innovative approaches,” she said. “This has been taken up at the grassroots level instead of the other way around, and if we can have these innovative models coming from the districts themselves, the better off we will be.”

‘Fired Up’ Teachers

Carol Anderson-Woo, the director of curriculum, accountability, and continuous improvement in the 16,000-student Tracy school district, said that when teachers there learned that nearly 55 percent of ELLs in the district’s middle and high schools were stuck in the long-term rut, they got “fired up” to do something.

A district-wide committee began debating and planning how to address the problem and created the Academic and Language Support program, known as ALAS, which was piloted in five schools in 2011-12.

The centerpiece of the program is a course taught to long-term ells as an elective in tandem with their core English/language arts class. The alas class provides instruction meant to develop more formal, academic English across all content areas; it focuses heavily on writing and fostering stronger study skills such as note-taking.

Teachers also set concrete goals with students to help motivate them and try to build relationships with them and their parents.

“We have really zeroed in on developing their writing, academic-language, and critical-reading strategies,” Ms. Anderson-Woo said.

As the district’s effort moves into the second year, there are still challenges to confront, Ms. Anderson-Woo said, including more curriculum development and the staffing for the course. When possible, the students’ mainstream English teacher also teaches the alas course, but scheduling has made that difficult, she said.

Another critical issue, Ms. Anderson-Woo said, has been winning over the students themselves.

Many long-term English-learners—especially those in high school—are reluctant to give up time that could be spent in another elective course and worry about the stigma from being in a course that they don’t think they need, she said. Others are accustomed to sitting silent in class, never speaking or participating.

“Many of those students have felt safe staying in their [English-learner] track, so we have to make the case to them that this is not what they need,” Ms. Anderson-Woo said.

The Tracy district has no hard data yet to examine what impact the course had on students who took it last year, but Ms. Anderson-Woo said anecdotes from teachers are powerful.

“What kids are communicating is that they appreciate that someone is really trying to help them, and that there are other students who are just like them,” she said. “These are kids who have failed repeatedly and often have to be convinced that they are not stupid.”

Ms. Olsen, the author of the Californians Together studies, said that when districts develop a support course for long-term ells, rigor is imperative. For much of those students’ schooling, the content has been watered down, she said.

It’s also important for the course curriculum to be aligned with their regular classes, she said, so that students “see the connection and how this course will help them with everything else.”

Similarly, the students need straight talk from their teachers about why they have been stuck as long-term ells and what exactly they need to do to be reclassified as fluent in English, she said.

“Then these students can start to see the possibilities for themselves,” Ms. Olsen said. “They can go to college and dream about it and know that they have people who are going to help get them there.”

A version of this article appeared in the September 19, 2012 edition of Education Week as Calif. Puts Spotlight on Long-Term ELLs

Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Professional Development Webinar
Building Leadership Excellence Through Instructional Coaching
Join this webinar for a discussion on instructional coaching and ways you can link your implement or build on your program.
Content provided by Whetstone Education/SchoolMint
Teaching Webinar Tips for Better Hybrid Learning: Ask the Experts What Works
Register and ask your questions about hybrid learning to our expert panel.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Families & the Community Webinar
Family Engagement for Student Success With Dr. Karen Mapp
Register for this free webinar to learn how to empower and engage families for student success featuring Karen L. Mapp.
Content provided by Panorama Education & PowerMyLearning

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Superintendent, Mount Pleasant CSD
Thornwood, New York
Hazard, Young, Attea & Associates
Instructional Designer Level 2
United States
K12 Inc.
Director of Headstart
New Haven, CT, US
New Haven Public Schools
Director of Headstart
New Haven, CT, US
New Haven Public Schools

Read Next

Federal Biden Announces Goal to Get Educators the COVID-19 Vaccine This Month
President Joe Biden pushes states to get educators at least one dose by the end of March to help schools resume in-person learning.
4 min read
John Battle High School teacher Jennifer Daniel receives her COVID-19 vaccine on Jan. 11, 2021. Teachers received their first vaccine during an all-day event at the Virginia Highlands Higher Education Center in Abingdon, Va.
John Battle High School teacher Jennifer Daniel receives her COVID-19 vaccine on Jan. 11, 2021. Teachers received their first vaccine during an all-day event at the Virginia Highlands Higher Education Center in Abingdon, Va.
David Crigger/Bristol Herald Courier via AP
Federal Explainer Miguel Cardona, U.S. Secretary of Education: Background and Achievements
Background and highlights of Miguel Cardona's tenure as the twelfth U.S. Secretary of Education.
Education Week Library
2 min read
Miguel Cardona, President-elect Joe Biden's nominee for Secretary of Education, speaks after being introduced at The Queen Theater in Wilmington, Del., on Dec. 23, 2020.
Miguel Cardona, U.S. Secretary of Education, speaks after being put forward for the position by then-President-elect Joe Biden in December 2020.
Carolyn Kaster/AP
Federal Senate Confirms Miguel Cardona as Education Secretary
The former Connecticut education commissioner got his start as an elementary school teacher and was a principal and school administrator.
2 min read
Miguel Cardona, President-elect Joe Biden's nominee for Secretary of Education, speaks after being introduced at The Queen Theater in Wilmington, Del., Wednesday, Dec. 23, 2020.
Miguel Cardona was confirmed by the Senate to serve as U.S. Secretary of Education. The former Connecticut education commissioner has worked as a teacher, principal, and district administrator.
Carolyn Kaster/AP
Federal Biden Legal Team Steps Back From Trump Stance on Transgender Female Sports Participation
The Education Department's office for civil rights pulls a letter that said Connecticut's transgender-inclusive policy violates Title IX.
4 min read
Bloomfield High School transgender athlete Terry Miller, second from left, wins the final of the 55-meter dash over transgender athlete Andraya Yearwood, far left, and other runners in the Connecticut girls Class S indoor track meet at Hillhouse High School in New Haven, Conn on Feb. 7, 2019. Transgender athletes are getting an ally in the White House next week as they seek to participate as their identified gender in high school and college sports. Attorneys on both sides say they expect President-elect Joe Biden’s Department of Education will switch sides in legal battles that could go a long way in determining whether transgender athletes are treated by the sex on their birth certificates or by how they identify.
Bloomfield High School transgender athlete Terry Miller, second from left, wins over transgender athlete Andraya Yearwood, far left, and other runners in an event in New Haven, Conn. The two transgender athletes are at the center of a legal fight in Connecticut over the participation of transgender female athletes in girls' or women's sports.
Pat Eaton-Robb/AP