Acknowledging that they are not meeting the needs of hundreds of thousands of students learning to speak English, the nation’s two largest school systems this month announced plans to improve instruction and services for English-language learners.
Pressed by federal and state officials, the Los Angeles Unified School District and the New York City Department of Education will adopt broad changes to their programs and services for students learning English.
In Los Angeles, school officials cooperated with the U.S. Department of Education to devise a plan to overhaul its master plan for serving English learners—an agreement that ends an 18-month-old enforcement action by the Education Department’s office for civil rights to improve educational opportunities for ELLs in that district. The pact also requires the Los Angeles district to target more resources and academic opportunities to its African-American students.
In New York City, school officials have pledged to start 125 bilingual programs over the next three years and to communicate more effectively with parents of English learners about the services available for their children. Schools also must improve their track record for assessing a new student’s language abilities in a timely way to determine if they require special services.
Those changes—and many others—are part of a “corrective action plan” that was ordered by the New York State Education Department last year. The district schools could face sanctions—including the withholding of federal and state funds—if it does not comply with the benchmarks set forth in the plan.
The improvement plans in both cities could serve as models for other school systems as the population of students who don’t read, write, and speak English proficiently continues to rise sharply across the country. According to the National Council of English Language Acquisition, the number of ELLs in public schools nationally rose from 3.5 million students during the 1997-98 school year to 5.3 million in 2008-2009.
“To have the two largest school districts in the country take the lead and voluntarily do what is right for these students is an example of the forward-looking leadership we need because so many school systems are struggling with these same challenges,” said Russlynn H. Ali, the federal Education Department’s assistant secretary for civil rights. “These kinds of actions shine a bright spotlight on what was going wrong and what can be done to make it right.”
Los Angeles Unified has nearly 200,000 students who are English learners—just under 30 percent of the district’s 670,000 students. More than 154,000 students—or 14.3 percent—are identified as English learners in the 1.1 million-student New York City system.
Ms. Ali, whose office led the civil rights investigation in Los Angeles, said her team’s probe found the district had no centralized process for evaluating the effectiveness of services for English learners or identifying how to improve those services across schools. The probe also found that a vast majority of English learners in middle and high school continued to struggle academically even after being deemed proficient in English, Ms. Ali said.
The investigation also revealed stark inequities for schools with large concentrations of African-American students. The school system was already overhauling its master plan for ELLs and worked cooperatively with the civil rights office to reach an agreement. The department will leave it up to local school officials to craft specific strategies, but will provide ongoing oversight, Ms. Ali said.
“This is really a way to help the district take the process it already had underway to ensure it is shaped in a way to address the problems that have happened historically,” she said.
In a written statement, Los Angeles Superintendent John Deasy said the district is committed to revamping its entire ELL program and “accelerating its efforts inclosing the achievement gap for our students.”
Delays in Processing
In New York City, English learners for years have lagged behind their peers even though the school system has made progress in increasing graduation rates for ELLs in recent years, said John B. King, Jr., the state education commissioner in New York. Mr. King said he also had concerns about whether the city was complying with state and federal laws and regulations related to educating students who are learning English.
Under the plan, New York City officials will be required to reduce the numbers of students who are not assessed for their language abilities within 10 days of enrolling in the school system. School system officials point to progress that has already been made on that front. During the 2009-10 school year, 77.9 percent of newly admitted students were assessed within 10 days of enrolling and that figure rose to 86.2 percent during 2010-11, according to district data.
The plan also calls for aggressively recruiting certified bilingual and English-as-a-second-language, or ESL, teachers. A shortage of such teachers has hobbled the district’s ability to provide required language services to growing numbers of ELLs. The city has pledged to add 125 bilingual programs over the next three years. ELL advocates said adding those programs addresses the impact of losing similar programs as the city moved to shut down large, comprehensive high schools and replace them with smaller schools.
“That particular reform has led to lots of unintended consequences for ELLs,” said Khin Mai Aung, the director of the Educational Equity Project at the New York City-based Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund.
The plan requires New York City schools to provide regular progress reports to state education officials and mandates regular reviews from the auditor general for the city’s education department.
“We are committed to holding them to the commitments they have made in this plan,” said Mr. King. “There are federal and state resources tied to their complying with federal and state regulations.”
City and state school officials negotiated the action plan for more than a year, Mr. King said. New York City school officials did not respond to requests for comment, but in a written statement, city Schools Chancellor Dennis M. Walcott said the corrective action plan builds on the district’s past progress with this student population. “We know that when these students become proficient in English and no longer need additional services, they perform even better than their peers and boost our system as a whole,” he said.
A version of this article appeared in the October 26, 2011 edition of Education Week as New York and Los Angeles Vow to Shape Up ELL Services