When Brooke Martin got promoted to executive director of career and technical education at Aldine Independent School District in Harris County, Texas, last year, one of the first people she heard from was the district’s multilingual services executive director.
The director, Altagracia “Grace” Delgado, had been looking into how the district’s English learner students engaged with electives. She had just collaborated with district leaders in the arts and had set her sights on how to ensure English learners at Aldine had equitable access to CTE programs.
Thus began an ongoing collaboration between the two education worlds. This year, the pair worked together to provide professional development for new CTE industry instructors on how to best teach English learners and to better inform English learner families what their students could get out of CTE programs.
Such cross-departmental collaboration is key for English learners’ success in CTE and all other aspects of school, according to a new analysis.
Delgado and Martin spoke with Education Week on advice for effective cross-departmental collaboration.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Why is it important for departments to collaborate when providing services to ELs?
Martin: My students are her students, her students are mine. And while sometimes our circles of overlay may not be as large in some areas, we’re all speaking the same language, and supporting in the same manner. So something that students may see in one class, it’ll transfer over to another.
Delgado: Before we put any additional labels, students are students first. So we need to do as much as we can to support them from all angles so they get the benefit of the school district as a whole.
How did you collaborate to ensure emergent bilinguals have access to quality CTE programming?
Delgado: [The Office of English Language Acquisition within the U.S. Department of Education] actually did a report on CTE with ELs last summer, when [Martin] was coming into her position. That was the first email she got from me. I was like “Oh, this report just published.” And her response was, “Actually, I’ve been thinking about some work that we need to do together. So let’s go ahead and have lunch.”
She had been analyzing the needs of her demographics in her classes and I had been thinking, OK, we really need to address CTE, because that’s a massive component of our high schools and we know that kids need access and support in those classrooms.
Martin: Building relationships, it’s not mandatory, but let me tell you how much easier and how seamless it becomes. When I first became an executive director, [Delgado] was one of the first ones that texted me and said, “Here’s my cellphone number.” As you transition from program director to executive director, you have questions.
It was just an olive branch to a new role that I had not experienced. And so that’s when we went into collaboration. Outside of just pedagogy and content support, it just became easy. We started talking about ideas, and it’s like, “Oh, wait, this will be good for you. That’s a great idea. This will work well for us. This is how you marry this.”
I think when we’re so stuck in our silos and not collaborating together, I become very defensive of the same kids that she’s defensive about. And so, if we already have this easy collaboration going on, anything that we’re going to do moving forward becomes that much easier. And then our teachers see that we’re supporting students from our end and it just kind of brings everything together.
Delgado: We just started trying things with the departments. But the personal part, just having lunch, that “Hey, what are you doing today for lunch,” we’re talking about the family. Building a personal relationship has helped in work collaboration.
What advice do you have for those facing obstacles to collaboration such as time constraints?
Delgado: Find your allies. It’s a phrase that I use a lot, because there’s always somebody that is trying to solve the same problem. So it doesn’t have to be massive, it can be like, “Oh, can we do something, the two of us for these kids.” And maybe it’s two classrooms in a school, maybe it’s one document that’s going to support something, and it’s something little. I think just something that’s relatable—that we can build together, and solidify—can then become the foundation for more things to come for more people to want to work in collaboration.
Martin: [Delgado] can’t speak 100 percent on CTE and I can’t speak 100 percent on multilingual. But the fact that we’ve now built to where we’ve gone to separate groups, now we’re just this one big group where now we can all speak the same in common verbiage.
What other advice do you have in engaging with cross-departmental collaboration?
Delgado: I would just say stay curious. What our kids have access to—it’s so different from what we had, for me, years ago. So just stay curious and listen to the kids. They have a lot of interesting ideas that can be integrated [into] a lot of these things.
Martin: The biggest advice that I can say is, it’s not personal, it’s intentional. It’s not about me, it’s not about what I want, what I think is going to be best. If I’m implementing something, I need to touch it, feel it, see it in action. And if you’re not doing that, and you’re not being intentional about the work, and you’re just throwing it out there, you’re not thinking of students.
So if you’re not in it with the work and you’re not dealing with the kids, you’re not physically there seeing it, then you have no connection. And I don’t know how you make real change, if you’re not physically doing it.