English-Language Learners

How Special Ed. and English-Learner Teachers Can Collaborate: A Guide

By Ileana Najarro — October 19, 2023 4 min read
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For years, researchers have called for district leaders to accommodate collaboration in planning and instruction for English learners to ensure these students are everyone’s priority within a district and they receive adequate services.

Cross-departmental collaboration, in particular, can be incredibly beneficial for these students as in the case of increasing equitable access to career and technical education programs for English learners.

But during a session at this year’s WIDA conference, gathering researchers and school and district leaders alike to discuss best practices for English learners, the importance of guided collaboration was clearer for students identified both as English learners and as eligible for special education services. The WIDA consortium offers language assessments for English learners in close to 40 states.

Laura Byard, a multilingual lead and instructional coach at Andersen United Middle School, and Kate McNulty, the assistant principal at Hmong International Academy, both in the Minneapolis public schools district, spoke of how they created a collaboration tool for both special education and English-language-development teachers in their district.

Making sure there is no either/or mindset

Before any structured collaboration can happen between departments in a given school district, both Byard and McNulty reminded educators that all educators must treat these populations of students as a priority.

Specifically, they referred to a U.S. Department of Education’s Dear Colleague letter of January 2015. That letter reminds districts that they must provide both language-assistance and special education services to students who qualify for them: “Districts must also inform a parent of an EL student with an individualized education program (IEP) how the language instruction education program meets the objectives of the child’s IEP,” it notes.

“This is where you have those conversations, ‘what service is more important?’ This is where we draw the line to say ‘no, they’re both important. They both have to happen and it’s up to us to figure out how this is going to work,’” McNulty said.

District leaders and teachers shouldn’t think of the special education department and the multilingual department as separate from each other and then both separate from general education classrooms, she added.

McNulty also pointed to research that found the national percentage of students exiting special education services each year is roughly 1.8 to 2.4 percent, with the majority of these students identified as having a speech disability.

Implementing a guided collaboration tool

As of spring 2023, there were 5,500 ELs in the Minneapolis public schools district which accounted for 17 percent of the student population. There were 5,700 students with IEPs, also about 17 percent of the student population, and 1,200 students identified as twice-exceptional or eligible for both special education and multilingual services, Byard said.

When both Byard and McNulty began working across the district to incentivize more intentional collaboration for those dually identified students, they found that some students were not getting adequate English-language-development services, with the common expression that “special ed. trumps EL services.”

So they created a dual eligible collaboration tool to aid teachers. Here’s how it works:

  • Teachers create space and time at the beginning of the year to review the form.
  • They began conversations with questions such as: What is the role of the English-learner teacher? What is the role of the special education teacher?
    • The special education teacher documents a student’s IEP in a high-level way to share with the English learner teacher. The two can then discuss where there is an intersection in goals.
    • For instance, they identify places where they can work together on literacy, to find patterns within key language uses or certain language features that would be supportive of the student’s language expectations.
    • These intersections get documented in the tool and prompt more questions, such as how a disability impacts the ability to acquire academic and/or functional language.
  • These conversations, of trying to connect goals across services in the name of a student’s academic success, get documented for compliance and offer a clear roadmap for educators as they carry on collaboration more organically from there, Byard said.

Implementing the tool was not easy, however.

Special education teachers wondered how collaboration would work for nonverbal students, while English-language-development teachers worried they didn’t understand various disabilities.

“We had a lot of fear between both groups of educators. But once they started talking about the child, they were able to learn so much more from one another and then that really started a rich, just a rich, collaborative process,” McNulty said.

Key to all this is time, support, and investment from district leaders, both McNulty and Byard said.

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