English-Learners’ Lot Improves With Federal Pressure

By Mary Ann Zehr — June 05, 2009 10 min read
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Nurta Muktar, a 17-year-old refugee of Somali heritage, learned to read this school year at East High School here. It likely wouldn’t have happened if East High didn’t provide classes in basic reading skills for English-language learners.

And the school likely wouldn’t have such classes, some teachers here say, if the U.S. Department of Education’s office for civil rights hadn’t forced the Salt Lake City district to bolster its services for English-learners in response to a complaint by a local activist in 2001.

Salt Lake City’s experience illustrates the array of changes a district may need to undergo to meet federal mandates on educating such students. After five site visits and eight years of monitoring, OCR officials released the school district from scrutiny in March, saying in a letter that ELLs “have meaningful access to the district’s educational programs.”

Over the past decade, the number of students who speak a language other than English at home attending the city’s schools has more than doubled, from 4,500 to 9,700. This Western city continually receives refugees from all over the world, many of whom have had little or no formal schooling. Now, 27 percent of the Salt Lake City district’s 25,000 students are receiving direct services to learn English as a second language.

To receive the OCR’s stamp of approval, the district had to significantly revise its plan for English-learners and carry it out. The district trained all elementary school principals on ELL placement, stepped up interpretation and translation services for parents, devised procedures to ensure such students had access to gifted and talented programs, and re-evaluated their placement in special education to make sure those children really belonged there.

In addition, the district subsidized the costs for teachers to earn endorsements to teach ELLs; the numbers of those teachers skyrocketed from 97 to 644. Another 270 teachers are in the process of getting endorsements.

J. Michael Clara, the Mexican-American city transit planner who filed the federal complaint, said he is particularly satisfied with the increase in teachers with endorsements. In Utah, that means they’ve taken at least six college courses in the ELL specialty area. Following the complaint, the district required all new teachers to get an endorsement within three years of being hired.

“The complaint had some legitimate questions and issues that needed to be addressed,” said McKell S. Withers, who has been the superintendent here for six years. He inherited the OCR matter from his predecessor.

Teacher Jen McCoy helps Faris Musa, 17, an Iraqi immigrant, in orange, in art class at East High School.

Mr. Withers said it has been frustrating at times, however, to work with OCR officials because they are “mostly lawyers” focused on compliance and not on students’ academic results. For example, he said, the OCR required the district to stick with its plan that each English-learner take language arts or English-language development from a teacher endorsed to work with ELLs, when, in fact, academic results for those children in the district have shown that some experienced teachers who lacked such an endorsement were effective with them.

A spokesman for the Education Department provided national statistics from the OCR and a written summary of its involvement in monitoring the Salt Lake City district but didn’t respond to specific questions about the case.

Limited Access

Salt Lake City was not alone in its apparent neglect of English-language learners. More than 30 complaints have been filed each of the past five years with the OCR alleging that school districts were not in compliance with Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 in providing adequate services for such students, according to the Education Department. That section of the law prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, or national origin in programs that receive government funding. The OCR is currently monitoring compliance agreements involving ELLs in 75 districts, 38 of them prompted by complaints.

J. Michael Clara filed the complaint that brought federal officials to the Salt Lake City district.

Nonetheless, William L. Taylor, the chairman of the Washington-based Citizens Commission on Civil Rights, contends that the office for civil rights “has been considered a morass for civil rights complaints” concerning English-language learners and other students. “In general,” he said, “people know that they are not ready to take enforcement action if they find noncompliance and they can’t get it corrected through negotiation.”

Mr. Taylor said he hopes the office will step up enforcement under the Obama administration.

Some Salt Lake City teachers who directly work with ELLs say their needs would likely still be ignored if the OCR hadn’t gotten involved. They say they feel good about how the district is now addressing the students’ needs.

While a few schools failed to make adequate yearly progress for ELLs last school year—East High among them—the district satisfied that provision of the federal No Child Left Behind Act overall. Former ELLs score higher on state tests than native speakers of English on average, Mr. Withers said. The district reclassified 27 percent of English-learners as fluent in the language this school year.

If recent audits or studies of ELL services in Boston, Portland, Ore., and Seattle are an indication of the quality of services for such students nationwide, Salt Lake City is now ahead of many other urban districts in giving English-language learners access to the core curriculum.

But back in 2001, the Salt Lake City district was woefully behind in that respect, according to Mr. Clara and some teachers who worked in the district then.

Mr. Clara said he first learned about the lack of services for English-learners when his nephew came to live with him and he enrolled the young man at Glendale Middle School in his neighborhood. Although his nephew wasn’t an English-learner, many of his schoolmates were, and the school didn’t have a single teacher providing ESL instruction.

At the time, the district offered services for secondary-level ELLs only at one middle and one high school. But Mr. Clara was told the middle school program was filled to capacity. He said he got the “runaround” when he asked the district how students attending other schools could get help. Mr. Clara said he viewed the lack of services for ELLs to be “institutionalized racism.”

He said he told district administrators and community members that “if these students drop out of school, they’re going to stay in the community. They are in the economy with the tools we give them.”

Thirteen years ago, Karl Wagstaff, a special education teacher with a master’s degree in Teaching of English to Speakers of Other Languages, or TESOL, was hired to teach special education at East High School. He says he had a “deep interest” in working with ELLs.

“At the beginning, I didn’t have any power to make the changes,” he said. School counselors, he recalled, were frustrated because the school was enrolling refugees who hadn’t ever been to school, and the school didn’t have any classes designed for them.

A decade ago, after a change in district leadership and persistence on his part to make some changes, Mr. Wagstaff began testing and teaching some ELLs. Seven years ago, he became the school’s first full-time English-as-a-second-language teacher. By then, the school already had 150 ELLs, a number that has grown to 347 out of a student body of 2,100.

Mr. Wagstaff said the OCR’s monitoring definitely “pushed [the issue] into the forefront.”

Three years ago, the district finally hired enough teachers, in Mr. Wagstaff’s view, to properly staff programs for English-language learners at East High.

Engaging Material

One of those hires was Rebecca Richardson, now the chairwoman of the ESL department. She said federal officials have required the district to place ELLs in English-language arts classes with students of their same English-proficiency level, a policy that the district had put in its revised plan and that she endorses.

In addition, the high school has created courses in other subjects, such as earth sciences and U.S. history, in which English-learners take classes with students at their same level of English proficiency.

On a recent day, Jessica Cleeves was teaching an earth sciences class to students with beginning-level English. She asked her class to brainstorm in pairs about what they could do to stop global warming, and then each student wrote a letter to U.S. Sen. Orrin Hatch, advising the Utah Republican on how to combat the problem.

Mauro Bazan, 15, a Peruvian who has been in the school for eight months, seems to be thriving in the class. During a break, he explained what was happening inside a “biosphere” that he had crafted out of soda bottles. Pointing to a patch of grass inside the plastic structure, he said: “The second week the plant is tall. I think the cricket died.”

But still struggling to grasp the content of the class were two youths who had been enrolled in the school for less than three weeks. One was 17-year-old Purna Bdr Gurung, who is of Bhutanese heritage but grew up in a refugee camp in Nepal. Another was Faris Musa, an Iraqi, who is also 17. The teacher set those two up to study English picture dictionaries.

Ms. Richardson, who team-teaches in the class a couple days a week, worked with the two newcomers and then turned the instruction over to a high school student, a volunteer assistant. The two learned phrases such as “open your notebook” and “where is the globe?”

Ms. Muktar, the teenager of Somali ancestry, has moved well beyond that point at last. Before coming to the United States, she had gone to school for only a half year in a refugee camp in Kenya. She’d been in Salt Lake City schools more than four years, but this school year, she moved from being a pre-reader to reading at a 2nd grade level, according to her reading teacher.

At that level, Ms. Muktar navigates a regular algebra class and an Art Foundations class. She also takes some classes designed for ELLs, including biology and U.S. history.

Early Start

Several years ago, the district was able to fulfill its promise to the OCR to place English-learners in elementary classrooms with teachers who had ESL endorsements, according to Kathleen Christy, an assistant superintendent for the district who is the liaison with the OCR.

But that turned out to be insufficient to satisfy OCR officials during their last visit, Ms. Christy said. They were concerned, she recalls, that teachers couldn’t explain well how they were helping students develop their English skills.

“There wasn’t a lot of oral English-language development going on,” acknowledged John C. Erlacher, the principal of Mountain View Elementary School, where 335 of the 560 students are ELLs.

OCR officials said students at the elementary level would have to receive 45 minutes of explicit English-language-development instruction per day, according to Ms. Christy.

The district decided the best way to do that was to have the ELLs receive that instruction separately from other students.

That OCR requirement helped teachers take more ownership in educating the school’s ELLs overall, said Julia Martinez, an English-as-a-second-language teacher who has taught at Mountain View for two decades.

Elementary schools can choose their own materials for the period. The Mountain View school uses a very scripted program that emphasizes oral English at the lower levels and written English at the higher levels of proficiency. Now, all teachers at the school either have an endorsement to work with ELLs or are working on it.

While Principal Erlacher remarked that OCR officials “didn’t have a sense of humor” and that sometimes their requirements didn’t seem fair, what his school has done to satisfy their concerns seems to be working. The school has made adequate yearly progress for ELLs for the past two years.

Even the newest arrivals don’t sit on the sidelines at Mountain View Elementary.

Staci Caldwell gives Ali Shelali, 8, a 2nd grader who arrived from Kenya in February, 40 minutes of extra time in a small group each day to help him catch up with his classmates. In addition, the boy spends an hour and 15 minutes each morning learning math and reading in a class for ELLs who are new arrivals taught by Ms. Martinez. Plus, he receives 45 minutes of explicit instruction in English that the OCR requires.

Eight-year-old Rukia Yayha arrived here from Kenya in early April. Recently, her 2nd grade teacher, Marjorie Lewis, paired her up with Julia Zamora, 8, a classmate who is fluent in English. Julia cheerfully guided Rukia in filling in missing letters to words.

When she visits classrooms, Ms. Martinez said, she notices that an English-language learner is often sitting right next to his or her teacher, getting extra help, and she recognizes that the school has come a long way in giving such students support.

The OCR played an important role in making the transition happen, she said.

“We didn’t have anything for the [ELL] kids,” said Ms. Martinez. “We knew they were in the school. OCR came and said, ‘What do you do for your ELL kids?’ ”

A version of this article appeared in the June 10, 2009 edition of Education Week as Under Federal Pressure, District Addresses ELLs


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