Federal English-Learner Office Reaches Out to Districts

By Mary Ann Zehr — May 16, 2011 3 min read
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The leaders of the office of English-language acquisition of the U.S. Department of Education haven’t been churning out new federal policies regarding ELLs, but they’re working hard to raise awareness about the needs of ELLs within the department and to build links with school districts across the nation, I gathered from an interview on Friday. For more than an hour, I spoke with Rosalinda B. Barrera, the director of the office, and Joanne H. Urrutia, the deputy director, in their offices in downtown D.C.

Barrera started her job late August (see my profile of her from November) and Urrutia, the former director of bilingual education and world languages for the Miami-Dade School District, began her post in early February. Barrera is the first political appointee to direct the office of English-language acquisition, or OELA, since May 2008.

So far, Barrera has focused on building an infrastructure (that means stepping up collaboration between her staff and the staff in other divisions of the department and getting a place at high-level meetings) so that ELLs are included in Education Department initiatives, and conducting “national conversations” on ELL issues in the five states that educate the most English-language learners: California, Florida, Illinois, New York, and Texas.

The conversations just wrapped up. A need for better assessments for ELLs and better preparation for all teachers to work with such students topped the issues, the women said. Also, they said, educators would like to see accountability goals for ELLs changed so that the students’ growth in academic achievement is taken into account, not just whether they reach a particular proficiency bar.

And what policies might OELA advocate to respond to these issues?, I asked.

They steered away from being pinned down on specifics, but Barrera said she will take advantage of the bully pulpit and “we have become quite skilled at collaboration.”

Barrera added that it’s important to take the time to build partnerships and to exchange information with people in the field. “I don’t want this office to be perceived as, ‘You’re in your ivory tower creating policy that’s divorced from the field,’ ” she said.

Barrera has been out and about. Besides participating in the national conversations on ELLs, she was an observer during a monitoring visit for English-language-acquisition programs funded with Title III of the No Child Left Behind Act in New York state.

It seems to me that these women do have their hands on the pulse of what are some of the most challenging issues for school districts to educate ELLs. They’ve invited people to their offices to discuss early-childhood education and teacher preparation and plan to soon host similar sessions on parental engagement and standards and assessments.

They say they have a goal of reaching beyond communication with state education officials, which the department does through Title III grants, to educators at the district level on best practices for ELLs.

They’ve taken a step in that direction in planning a forum on how to improve education for English-language learners with special needs. The one-day meeting is scheduled for Wednesday in Las Vegas and is being co-sponsored by OELA and the Council of the Great City Schools. The key audiences are directors of ELL programs and directors of special education programs in urban school districts. Invited to share their expertise on this topic are school districts in Austin, Texas; Chicago, Dallas; Miami; New York City; and San Diego.

When I asked Barrera to sum up her agenda for OELA, she said that “content achievement is extremely important to us, so that we don’t reduce the schooling of English-language learners only to a language issue.”

She added that helping ELLs to acquire academic content is about “accelerating and supporting, not just remediating.”

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