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New York State Sets Focus on English-Learners

By Lesli A. Maxwell — June 03, 2014 4 min read
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With the shift to the common standards and recent history of low student-achievement results as catalysts, education leaders in New York state are pushing a new agenda for English-language learners that calls for more accountability for their needs and more opportunities for rigorous bilingual and dual-language instruction.

Called the Blueprint for English-Language Learners Success, the document was approved by the state board of regents this spring. It outlines priorities and expectations for how districts across New York are to provide instruction and support for English-learners in public schools. Among them: that all teachers, regardless of grade level or content expertise, should consider themselves teachers of English-learners; and that school leaders at all levels—including principals and superintendents—are responsible for the academic, linguistic, social, and emotional needs of ELLs.

“I think this document positions our state education department to break new ground by saying that English-learners are no longer a minority in our districts for the [English-as-a-second-language] and bilingual education teachers to focus on,” said Catalina R. Fortino, a vice president of New York State United Teachers.

The blueprint—a sweeping, perhaps first-of-its-kind statement from state policymakers on the needs of English-learners—also directs districts and schools to provide opportunities for students whose first language is not English to participate in language-learning programs that not only lead to fluency in English, but also to full literacy in their home languages.

“We feel very strong about this direction for our English-learners,” said Angelica Infante, the associate commissioner for the office of bilingual education and foreign-language services in the New York state education department. “We want this blueprint to guide the field and be blunt about what our expectations are for English-learners.”

New York’s K-12 public schools enroll nearly 215,000 English-learners of a total of 2.6 million students, a population that grows larger and more diverse each year, said Ms. Infante. Though the largest share of ELLs is spread among the state’s five largest districts—Buffalo, New York City, Rochester, Syracuse, and Yonkers—suburban and rural districts are seeing increasing numbers of immigrant families and their children.

Lagging Behind

Some of the state’s biggest achievement gaps are between students who are not yet proficient in English and other student groups. For example, 34.3 percent of English-learners who entered the 9th grade in 2008 graduated from high school four years later, the lowest rate of any other major student subgroup.

To address that weak performance, John B. King Jr., the state’s education commissioner, last year created the post of associate commissioner and tapped Ms. Infante to fill it. Unlike the more contentious education policies Mr. King has championed—such as common-core-aligned assessments and teacher evaluations tied in part to student performance—his push for improved instruction and supports for ELLs has so far brought consensus among advocates, professional educator groups, and the statewide teachers’ union, most of whom helped craft the blueprint, said Susanne Marcus, the president of New York State Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages, or NYS TESOL.

“Since the common-core learning standards came out, a lot of ESL and bilingual teachers were very concerned that our students would be an afterthought,” Ms. Marcus said. “But the work we’ve done on the blueprint has ensured that those of us who know these students best get to help guide districts and schools around the state about how they can move English-learners to a place where they not only become fully proficient in English and in the content standards, but also have their social and emotional needs met.”

Plans to Add ‘Teeth’

The blueprint is a guiding document that has little enforcement behind it now, but Ms. Infante said the education agency is pushing to “put some teeth behind this” and is pursuing more resources to support districts putting the principles into practice.

It calls for teachers, principals, superintendents, and school board members to set high expectations for the academic performance of ELLs and also for their socioemotional development and to back those up with action plans. To do that, the blueprint includes finer points for districts to follow, including tapping ESL and bilingual education teachers to provide professional development to their peers and supervisors about ELLs’ needs.

It also outlines steps for districts and schools to follow to make family members—including those who are not proficient in English themselves—involved in their children’s education. That includes providing resources in languages they understand.

One of the blueprint’s most significant directives is its call for local educators to “recognize that bilingualism and biliteracy are assets.”

Nancy Villarreal de Adler, the executive director of the New York State Association for Bilingual Education, said that particular piece signals a major shift in recognition of students’ home languages.

“This is a recognition of the linguistic and cultural wealth that these children have,” she said. “And the vision for them is not only to become fluent and literate in English, but to complete rigorous language programs that make them fully biliterate in English and their home language.”

A version of this article appeared in the June 04, 2014 edition of Education Week as N.Y. State Sets New Agenda for ELL Students

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