Special Report

Large Districts to Use Stimulus for ELL Support

By Mary Ann Zehr — May 18, 2009 4 min read
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At least four large urban school districts plan to spend a significant amount of their federal economic-stimulus money to support or improve programs for English-language learners, a fast-growing group in U.S. schools. The districts—Boston, New York City, St. Paul, Minn., and Seattle—have had varying degrees of success serving such students.

The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which includes up to $100 billion for education programs, doesn’t specifically mention ELLs, and the U.S. Department of Education’s guidance for the law makes only passing reference to them.

But “limited-English students are among the very students that these stimulus dollars are aimed at,” Jim Bradshaw, a spokesman for the Education Department, said in an e-mail last week. The department, he noted, mentioned that ELLs could benefit from better assessments in its March 7 announcement of its initial distribution of $44 billion in stimulus money.

Even so, some ELL advocates are disappointed that the Education Department hasn’t done more to encourage the use of stimulus funds for those students.

“There hasn’t been a lot of talk about it or a lot of policy around it,” said Delia Pompa, the vice president for education for the National Council of La Raza, a Washington-based Latino-advocacy group.

The ELL Working Group, a panel of researchers formed this year to discuss the reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind Act, has tried to fill the gap with its own ideas for using stimulus funds effectively for ELL programs.

“I was not pleased that English-language learners weren’t mentioned [in the economic-stimulus act],” said Kenji Hakuta, an education professor at Stanford University and a member of the working group. “It’s a lot of money, so you like to see some easy avenue by which you can access the funds to serve the population.”

The group’s 22-page document spells out how schools can tap various funding streams within the stimulus act for ELLs. It says, for instance, that the additional Title I funds, which target disadvantaged students, can be spent on improving curriculum, instruction, assessment, accountability, and community relations for ELLs.

“Such changes must target both the English-language proficiency and academic content needs of ELLs,” it says.

Recommendations Shared

Nonprofit groups are spreading the word about the recommendations. For example, WestEd, a San Francisco-based regional laboratory providing services to states, is planning to feature them in a webinar on May 26. The Council of the Great City Schools invited Mr. Hakuta to speak about the recommendations at a recent meeting of ELL program directors.

In addition, the Carnegie Corporation of New York awarded the ELL Working Group $50,000 to start a Web-based clearinghouse for ideas on how to use stimulus money for English-learners, Mr. Hakuta said.

Researchers or evaluators have found services for ELLs in Boston and Seattle to be flawed. But the New York City and St. Paul districts are considered by the Washington-based council to have promising practices for educating ELLS.

Veronica Gallardo, who has overseen ELL programs in the Seattle public schools since July, says the stimulus law has begun a new conversation about how Title I funds can be used for educating the district’s 6,400 ELLs.

Ms. Gallardo is on the district’s planning committee for spending stimulus funds. “They’ve been bringing me to the table for really important meetings, which is great,” she said. “That’s not been the case in the past.”

Revamping Programs

The 44,000-student district plans to use some of its $11 million in Title I stimulus funds for a major revamping of ELL services, though the amount that will be allocated to that effort hasn’t been decided yet, Ms. Gallardo said. The overhaul includes a change in instructional approach. Instead of taking students out of regular classes for daily English instruction, for example, ELL teachers will team up with classroom teachers.

The revamp is needed, according to an audit of Seattle’s ELL programs conducted last year by the Council of the Great City Schools. The auditors described the district’s approach to teaching ELLs as “ad hoc, incoherent, and directionless.”

Boston schools have also been characterized as lacking adequate programs for English-language learners. A study released this year by the Mauricio Gastón Institute for Latino Community Development and Public Policy at the University of Massachusetts at Boston and the Center for Collaborative Education, a nonprofit in Boston, found that the achievement gap between English-learners and native speakers of English widened at all grade levels from 2003 to 2006.

The district is expecting to use some of the $20 million it expects from the stimulus law to buy more materials and professional development, said John P. McDonough, the chief financial officer of the Boston district, where a fifth of the 55,800 students are ELLs.

A large portion of Title I funds already benefit ELLs in St. Paul, where 38 percent of the 38,000 students are English-learners, said Heidi Bernal, who directs programs for such students there. She’s been a key planner for how to use stimulus funds for all students, including ELLs, she said.

Some of the funds will be spent on making districtwide data collection more user-friendly and the data more accessible to teachers, Ms. Bernal explained.

The 1 million-student New York City system expects to use stimulus funds to prevent cuts in existing programs, including those for its 148,000 ELLs, according to Nicole Duignan, a spokeswoman for the district.

A version of this article appeared in the May 20, 2009 edition of Education Week as Large Districts to Use Stimulus for ELL Support


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