Frequently asked

There are lots of ways schools teach English learners. Here’s how it works.

PHOTO: Andy Cross/The Denver Post
Lindsey Erisman works with 6-year-old students in an English Language Acquisition class at Denver's Cole Arts & Science Academy.

School district officials in Westminster this year signed an agreement with federal officials to change how they educate students who are learning English as a second language.

Similar agreements have also shaped how districts in Denver, Aurora, Adams 14, and Adams 12 educate their English language learner students. But many people, including parents and district insiders, may still have questions about the various complicated programs and requirements.

Although many of the language-education agreements are years old, most of the issues haven’t been resolved. In Adams 14, for instance, parents and advocates have protested a district decision to stop biliteracy programming, and have questioned the district’s compliance with its agreement to better serve English learners. District officials have pointed out that their obligation is teaching students English, not making them bilingual.

Now at least one charter school, KIPP, is looking to fill in that programming gap. Many other states have had a number of biliteracy and other bilingual programs at various schools for years, but Colorado has only more recently started to follow those trends.

So what’s the difference between the various language programs and services? And what is required by law and what isn’t? The following questions and answers might help clarify some of those questions as you follow the news around these issues.

Which students are designated as English language learners? Do parents get to decide, or do schools decide?

Federal guidance requires school districts have some way to identify English learners. Most commonly, districts survey all parents at school registration about their home language and the student’s first language. If that survey finds there might be an influence of another language at home, the student must be assessed to determine fluency in English. While the district has to identify all students who aren’t fluent in English as language learners, parents in Colorado can choose to waive the federally required services for their children. If so, the district doesn’t have to provide special services, but would still be required to monitor that the student is making progress toward acquiring English.

What educational rights do English language learners have?

English language learners have specific rights under the Lau v. Nichols Supreme Court case from 1974 and the subsequent Castañeda standards released in 1981. State laws also outline some requirements for school districts. Specifically, school districts must provide programs for all identified language learners to give them the opportunity to learn English and to access a comprehensive curriculum. The government does not state what that program should be, but provides some standards requiring that any program is theoretically sound and has a research base to support it. The program has to have qualified teachers, and a way to demonstrate that students are making progress in learning English and their academic content. While the civil rights officials consider many details to verify compliance, simply put, school districts have the legal obligation to identify students, serve them in a sound program, and monitor their progress.

What is the difference between bilingual education and “ELL services?”

Bilingual education (which is the program that has the most support for efficacy from the research community) offers students opportunities to learn in their native language while they are learning English. Bilingual programs can vary from short-term, or early-exit programs, to more longer-term developmental programs.

English language learner services do not need to provide opportunities for students to learn in the native language. Most commonly these services only offer English language development classes (generally 45 minutes per day). All other content instruction is offered only in English. ELL services are not bilingual.

What is English language development?

English language development must be a part of any program or model a district or school adopts. It is the class time when students are taught the English language. The government wants to see that English learners are given a dedicated time to learn English, when they are not competing with native English speakers. That means, often, English language development is offered as a time when students are pulled out of class to practice English, or as a special elective period students must take without their English-speaking peers.

The structure of this time period, who has access to it, or who teaches it, are areas commonly cited as problems by the federal Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights.

Do students who are identified as English language learners retain that designation forever? What does it mean to be an “exited ELL?”

They’re not supposed to. Students who are English learners should be tested at least once a year to determine their English proficiency. When a student reaches a high enough level, school staff must determine if the student is now fluent in English. If so, the student becomes an “exited ELL.” The law requires districts to monitor for two years students who have exited and are no longer receiving services. There are, however, students who do not reach English fluency before graduating or leaving school.

What is the difference between being bilingual and being biliterate?

Bilingual generally refers to oral language in that bilingual people can understand and speak two languages but may not be able to read and write in those languages. Biliterate refers to being able to understand, speak, read, and write in two languages. Many people are bilingual but not biliterate. Biliteracy is considered to be a higher form of bilingualism.

What is the difference between dual language and biliteracy models?

Dual language and biliteracy models share many common components. Both models usually have biliteracy as their end goal for students. Dual language models may be “one-way” or “two-way.” One-way programs generally serve students who are designated as English language learners (also sometimes called emerging bilinguals). Two-way dual language programs include students who are native English speakers. The only major difference is that biliteracy models focus on using two languages in the language arts or literacy classes (reading and writing in two languages) whereas dual language focuses on using two languages across the entire school day’s curriculum.

What is an immersion model?

Immersion models traditionally are thought of as referring to programs primarily intended for students from the dominant language population to learn a second language. This is different from programs meant to teach English.

While native English students can choose whether or not to learn a second language, students who are English language learners do not have a choice in learning English.

What is sheltered instruction?

This type of instruction takes place in non-dual language schools, during regular content classes (such as math or science), and it’s one way schools try to make the content understandable to students who aren’t yet fluent in English.

This is especially common in schools where English learners speak a variety of languages. Crawford Elementary in Aurora, for instance, has had up to 35 different languages represented among its approximately 560 students. If there aren’t enough students who speak a common first language and also a teacher who speaks the same language as those students, then schools must teach through English, while making the English as accessible as possible.

In practice, this means an English-speaking teacher would use sheltered instruction techniques to help all children understand the lessons such as, physical props, a focus on building vocabulary, and sentence stems.

Denver designates schools as TNLI schools. What does that mean?

Denver created the TNLI label in 1999 to set the district apart from other bilingual program models. TNLI stands for Transitional Native Language Instruction. The Denver TNLI program is a transitional bilingual education program model with a label created just for Denver. It’s a model where instruction in Spanish is used to help students learn while they’re acquiring English, but still has a goal of making students fluent in English as soon as possible, at which point students move into mainstream English classrooms.

Is one of these models best suited for English learners?

Among researchers, it is commonly accepted that dual language or biliteracy models are the most effective to put English learners on par with their native speaking peers, in the long run.

Why do teachers have to be trained specifically to teach this population of students? What are teachers learning?

Educators and researchers say that teachers need to learn the differences and similarities between learning in one language and learning bilingually. Teachers need to learn about literacy methodology and how teaching literacy in Spanish (for example) is the same and different as teaching literacy in English. They have to learn how to teach English language development to students who are beginning to learn English (it is different than just teaching in English). These trainings also help teachers learn about cultural similarities and differences and about sources of culture conflict. Teachers need to be able to teach children English; how to use English to learn; and how the English language works. In bilingual settings teachers need to learn those three things for two languages. In short, the training needed to be a bilingual teacher is quite different. Colorado will soon require some of this training for all teachers.

What are the challenges districts have in offering these different programs? How do schools decide which type of model to offer?

The demographics of a district’s student population, and district politics play a large part in helping a district decide what model or program to use. Resources can also be a factor in deciding how to structure services or what programs to offer. In Adams 14, when the district leadership decided to pause the roll out of a biliteracy program, the district cited a lack of qualified bilingual teachers, among other things.

In Westminster, the school district’s unique competency-based approach, which removes grade levels and seeks to personalize instruction, was cited as a reason why the district had structured its English language development the way it had before the investigation by the Office for Civil Rights sought to change it.

Does Colorado provide guidance or oversight for how districts are doing this work?

The Colorado Department of Education offers some guidance for districts, but oversight of the districts’ compliance with what is required is limited. In practice, when parents suspect their children aren’t educated well, they have filed complaints with the federal government. In Denver, the complaints went through the Department of Justice. Investigations of most other metro-area districts have been conducted by the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights.

out of pocket

Pencils, shelving, wiggly chairs: What Colorado teachers bought for their classrooms — and why

PHOTO: Laura Henry
Aurora kindergarten teacher Laura Henry provided the pencil totes, floor dots, balls and wiggle seats, and everything you see on the shelves out of her own pocket.

The rugs and bean bag chairs, the workboxes full of hands-on learning games, the file folders that help her track student progress — all came out of special education teacher Laura Keathley’s own pocket.

Robyn Premo, a high school science teacher, buys styrofoam and cans, glass rods and balloons, patches of fur and s’mores ingredients — just about all the materials except beakers that her students need to do hands-on experiments.

Marcea Copeland-Rodden, a middle school social studies teacher, bought an air-conditioning unit for her classroom because it was so hot students were getting bloody noses.

And everyone buys loads and loads of pencils.

“I don’t think that not having a pencil is a reason a kid should not learn today,” Premo said.

There’s nothing new about teachers spending money on their classrooms, but as rising housing prices and stagnant wages put more pressure on working families and as academic expectations rise even in kindergarten, teachers have to dig deep to meet their students’ basic needs and outfit their school rooms.

A national survey by the U.S. Department of Education found that 94 percent of teachers spend their own money for their students, with the average teacher spending $479 in the 2015-16 school year, the most recent data available.

When the Colorado Education Association surveyed more than 2,000 members in 2017, they reported spending an average of $656 out of their own pocket on classroom supplies.

The usual caveat applies: These numbers are self-reported.

To better understand what this looks like in Colorado classrooms, Chalkbeat reached out to teachers around the state to ask how much they spent out of pocket, what they bought, and why.

The teachers who responded to Chalkbeat’s survey work in districts large and small, urban and rural, and spent anywhere from $75 to $2,000. Most respondents spent several hundred dollars, and the majority said they do not get a stipend for school supplies.

Their spending covers the most basic of classroom supplies — pens, pencils, glue sticks, crayons, paper, folders, notebooks — but also the things that make classrooms feel inviting, that make learning engaging, that help a kid get through the day. Teachers bought snacks and spare clothes, earbuds for students to listen to audio books as part of reading lessons, wiggly chairs and yoga balls for fidgety learners, classroom decorations, tissues and wipes, prizes for good work and good behavior, fish for the fish tank, storage bins and shelving and fabric for makeshift blinds.

Premo teaches chemistry and physics at Westminster High School. Her department gets a $3,000 supply budget for the high school’s 2,400 kids. She emphasizes that she thinks her school is doing everything it can, but if she didn’t reach into her own pocket, her students would mostly experience science in online simulations.

“That is not, in my opinion, sufficient for rigorous, authentic science instruction, so I make the personal contributions to give my kids those learning opportunities,” she said.

Premo spent $2,000 getting ready for the school year, the most of any teacher who responded to Chalkbeat’s survey. She said she’s able to contribute more than many teachers, so she does.

“There are some fantastic online simulations, but kids learn better when they get to put their hands on things,” she said.

Fur patches help demonstrate static electricity, and s’mores help illustrate principles of chemical reactions. All these materials add up, and many of them are consumed in the process of lab work.

If Premo didn’t spend her own money, “we would run out of pencils very quickly. And we would run out of lab materials, and they would not be able to do anything hands-on. And we would lose our ability to be creative. We would work very bare-bones. It would be a lot of listening, a lot of videos.”

Laura Henry teaches kindergarten in Aurora Public Schools. It’s her 29th year in the classroom, and as kindergarten has moved away from play and more toward academics, she’s spent more and more of her own money on curriculum supplies.

Her school provides $500 a semester to each grade level, which has to be shared among three teachers, and the money goes fast. Teachers also get $10 a month for copying, which she burns through quickly, so she bought her own printer just for school use.

Because most of the students come from low-income families, the school tries to keep the school supply list modest, closer to $25, but only about three-quarters of the students bring in supplies.

PHOTO: Laura Henry
Aurora kindergarten teacher Laura Henry’s classroom after it has been cleaned during the summer. With the exception of the red shelf, a few alternative seating items, and the pencil coat rack, these items are school purchased.

She spent about $500 of her own money getting ready for the school year, on everything from folders to hold student poems to snacks and wipes to materials for dramatic play, building toys, puppet theater, books, and more.

“Kindergarten is supply-heavy because we use construction paper and glue like there is no tomorrow,” she said.

Many of our survey respondents said they don’t use online fundraisers like Donors Choose because the only people who donate are friends and family, and teachers feel bad hitting them up over and over again. Henry encounters the same dilemma, but she did turn to it this year for $550 in science and engineering supplies: gears, a light table, animal X-rays, a microscope and more.

Another advantage of Donors Choose: The money she puts into it herself is tax deductible, unlike the rest of what she spends on her classroom.

PHOTO: Laura Henry
Kindergarten teacher Laura Henry purchased the housekeeping table and chairs, everything on the wall and shelves, the books in the bin, tool bench, and playground buckets for her Aurora classroom.

Henry said she used to sometimes feel resentful about spending her own money, when her friends get reimbursed for their work expenses, but now she “rolls with it” as part of the teaching profession.

But she sees the lack of supplies as one more stumbling block for young teachers.

“I see these new teachers come in, and they’re so ready and eager to make a difference, and they don’t know how they get supplies or how they get copies,” she said. “I don’t know that our school board is even fully aware of how much we’re lacking at the classroom level. I don’t need 8,000 consultants to help me. I need my classroom funded.”

Keathley runs a multi-needs special education room with two paraprofessionals at Avery-Parsons Elementary in the Buena Vista district in the Arkansas Valley. She spent $485 getting the classroom ready this year. A lot of that money went to filing systems that help the teachers keep track of each student’s needs and progress. It also went to bulletin board supplies. These boards serve as the “411 wall” with everything kids need to know for the day, from what their classroom job is to what outside appointments they have.

PHOTO: Laura Keathley
The bulletin board in Laura Keathley’s Buena Vista classroom serves as a 411 wall for her students. She purchases all the supplies for the board herself.

Keathley and her team used their own money to outfit the “crash corner,” where students go when they need to decompress with fidget toys in a giant bean bag chair, and to make workboxes with activities that students can work on independently throughout the day.

Keathley said she hardly asks her parents for any school supplies.

“We know that a lot of times parents of kids with disabilities, we know their money goes other places and they spend so much on special things for their kids, we don’t want to ask them,” she said.

Without her own investment in the classroom, it would be a very different place.

“I could go with what the school provided me and stay within my budget, but my classroom would not be the place I would like it to be,” she said. “We wouldn’t have rugs. We wouldn’t have nearly the supplies to give snacks or do cooking in the classroom. Our desks would be much more utilitarian, and we wouldn’t have much on the walls.”

Copeland-Rodden teaches seventh grade social studies at Pueblo Academy of the Arts in southern Colorado.

She spent $500 this year, more than most, because she dropped $350 on the air conditioning unit. It might seem like an extravagance, but after years of buying more and more fans, for minimal relief, it felt like a necessity.

“It’s just really hot in the classroom,” she said. “We have kids get bloody noses, that’s how bad it is. By sixth and seventh period, everybody is done. They don’t do their work. They fall asleep. They get cranky and angry at each other. It makes it tough on everyone.”

She also bought materials for Civil War shadow puppets and other projects that will make history come alive, but most of her classroom spending is on basic supplies. She doesn’t feel like she can ask parents, most of whom are low-income, to pay for supplies when she only has their child for one period a day. Out of 130 students, one brought in a box of tissues at the start of the school year.

“I spend so much on pencils,” she said. “It’s not just once. I go through a big 50-pack of pencils every month. Every class there’s at least one kid who has lost a pencil. I’ve given up trying to get back the pencils.”

She used to ask kids for something in exchange for the pencil to prompt them to return it, but too many kids had nothing to give.

“One boy said, ‘Here’s a shoe,’ and I said, ‘I don’t want your shoe,’” she said. “I have kids walking from class to class with nothing.”

Teaching has been this way for a long time, and the teachers who talked to Chalkbeat don’t see it changing anytime soon.

“If we all collectively agreed we weren’t going to pay for school supplies, maybe eventually someone would do something,” Premo said. “But I don’t want to risk this year’s kids to make that point.”

Super Search

‘Who we are:’ Denver’s background statement for superintendent candidates, annotated

PHOTO: Denver Post file
Denver Public School Superintendent Tom Boasberg speaks to faculty during a town hall meeting in Denver on Aug. 20, 2013.

For the first time in more than a decade, the Denver school district is searching the nation for its next superintendent. The school board recently hired a big search firm to help find candidates to replace Tom Boasberg, who is stepping down in October.

The board also penned a four-page document introducing the 92,600-student district – and its greatest strengths and weaknesses – to potential future leaders.

“The point of this document is to make a statement to those who would apply and to the community that we understand how important this job is,” board member Happy Haynes explained at a recent meeting where the document was unveiled. “We wanted to make sure people have a holistic view of our district: the good, the bad, and everything in between.”

Chalkbeat has embedded the full document below. We’ve also annotated it with explanations and context about the various initiatives described in it, as well as links to our previous coverage and to other sources. Click on the highlighted yellow passages to read our annotations.