Feds: Schools must serve English language learners better

Three out of four schools now educate students who have a native language that is not English. More than 9 percent of all public school students across the country are English language learners.

In Indiana the statewide number is well below the national average at 5 percent, but some districts have large numbers of students still learning English, like Perry Township (20 percent), Pike Township (17 percent), Wayne Township (15 percent) and Indianapolis Public Schools (14 percent).

Even as the population of non-native English speakers in public schools booms, districts and states have sometimes struggled to ensure that those students have the same access to school programs as their peers whose native language is English.

A new set of guidelines, released Wednesday by the federal Department of Justice and the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, sets out to clarify districts’ and states’ obligations to English learners. (The guidelines have also been translated into 10 languages.)

“The data we have reflects the increasing diversity of our schools, including the increasing diversity of English learners,” said Catherine Lhamon, the assistant secretary for the education department’s Office for Civil rights. “We know those opportunity gaps (between English learners and their peers) are real.”

Lhamon said the new guidelines would help “avoid the need for ongoing enforcement and make sure state and district school leaders are able to satisfy their obligations.”

“I think a lot of this guidance is more of a reminder for us in Indiana as opposed to sweeping changes,” said Jessica Feeser, who coordinates English as a new language services for Indianapolis Public Schools. “These are things that we are already doing.”

States and school districts are required to provide English learners equal access to high-quality education under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and by the Equal Educational Opportunities Act. But the DOJ had never issued clear guidance on the issue, and the Education Department had not done so in 24 years.

The federal education department’s Office for Civil Rights has received some 475 complaints about English learners’ access to high-quality education in the past five years. And the federal justice department has agreements with more than 20 districts and states governing how they work with them.

For instance, one school district in Ohio had not advertised a program for English learners in Spanish, the most common language spoken by English learners and their parents in the area.

Many of the complaints centered around whether English learners with disabilities were being properly identified and receiving the services to which they are legally entitled, Lhamon said.

Both districts with rapidly growing populations of English learners and districts with long-established programs for students learning English were the subject of complaints.

In Indiana, the more than 55,000 students classified as English learners were identified through a home survey they take when they enter the school system, typically in Kindergarten, or when they moved into their district.

If a student’s survey indicates that English is not their native language, or that another language is most often spoken by the student, students are tested on their ability to listen, speak, read and write in English.

If they score anywhere below proficient fluency, they must be provided services.

The federal guidelines include information about how districts should identify and assess English learners and about what kinds of language assistance those students need. It details how states and districts should avoid unnecessary segregation of English learners, ensure that all students have access to school programs and activities, remove students from programs for English learners when appropriate, ensure that English learners with special needs are identified and receive services, and provide information about programs to parents whose English proficiency is limited.

The Department of Education also released a tool kit with information about identifying English learners. Lhamon said this is the first of several resource guides for working with English learners the department will release.

Indianapolis Public Schools, which has more than 4,500 English learners, is in the process of creating a four-year improvement plan with the Indiana Department of Education because it had reached four consecutive years of not meeting annual objectives for its language learners.

Forty-one percent of IPS’s English learners are considered “advanced” by the state in their English skills — nearly proficient — but Feeser said many still have trouble understanding academic terms and communication.

“It seems like they really know what they’re doing because they can talk with you, but when it comes to the academic language piece, that’s when they’re having the discrepancies,” Feeser said.

Only 9 percent of IPS’s English learners are labeled by the state as “beginners” in using English. Feeser said those students are typically in Kindergarten and first grade.

Feeser said she feels the improvement plan will start shifting the culture of serving English learners in the district. She said new standards for serving the students “encourage every teacher to be a language teacher.”

“I am very, very confident this process will allow us to grow in ways we haven’t grown previously so we can find out where the best practices are happening so we can emulate them in other schools,” she said.