In the Classroom

Feds: Schools must serve English language learners better

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

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.

talking SHSAT

Love or hate the specialized high school test, New York City students take the exam this weekend

PHOTO: Christina Veiga/Chalkbeat
At a town hall this summer in Brooklyn's District 15, parents protested city plans to overhaul admissions to elite specialized high schools.

The Specialized High Schools Admissions Test has been both lauded as a fair measure for who gets accepted to the city’s most coveted high schools — and derided as the cause for starkly segregating them.

This weekend, the tense debate is likely to be far from the minds of thousands of students as they sit for the three-hour exam, which currently stands as the sole admissions criteria for vaunted schools such as Stuyvesant and Brooklyn Tech.

All the debate and all the policy stuff that’s been happening —  it’s just words and there really isn’t anything concrete that’s been put into place yet. So until it happens, they just continue on,” said Mahalia Watson, founder of the website Let’s Talk Schools, an online guide for parents navigating their school options.

Mayor Bill de Blasio this summer ignited a firestorm with a proposal to nix the SHSAT and instead offer admission to top middle school students across the city. Critics say the test is what segregates students, offering an advantage to families who can afford tutoring or simply are more aware of the importance of the exam. Only 10 percent of specialized high school students are black or Hispanic, compared to almost 70 percent of all students citywide.

For some, the uproar, coupled with a high profile lawsuit claiming Harvard University discriminates against Asian applicants, has only added to the pressure to get a seat at a specialized school. Asian students make up about 62 percent of enrollment at specialized high schools, and families from that community have lobbied hard to preserve the way students are admitted.

One Asian mother told Chalkbeat in an email that, while she believes in the need for programs that promote diversity, the SHSAT is “a color blind and unbiased” admissions measure. Her daughter has been studying with the help of test prep books, and now she wonders whether it will be enough.  

“In my opinion, options for a good competitive high school are very limited,” the mom wrote. “With all the recent news of the mayor trying to change the admission process to the specialized high schools and the Harvard lawsuit makes that more important for her to get acceptance.”

Last year, 28,000 students took the SHSAT, and only 5,000 were offered admission. Among this year’s crop of hopeful students is Robert Mercier’s son, an eighth grader with his sights set on High School of American Studies at Lehman College.

Mercier has encouraged his son to study for the test — even while hoping that the admissions system will eventually change. His son plays catcher on a baseball team and is an avid debater at school, activities that Mercier said are important for a well-rounded student and should be factored into admissions decisions.

“If you don’t do well on that one test but you’ve been a great student your whole career,” Mercier said, “I just don’t think that’s fair and I don’t think that’s necessarily a complete assessment of a student’s abilities or worth.”

Teacher's tale

Video: This Detroit teacher explains how she uses her classroom to ‘start a real loud revolution’

Silver Danielle Moore, a teacher at the Detroit Leadership Academy, tells her story at the Tale the Teacher storytelling event on October 6, 2018.

Silver Danielle Moore doesn’t just see teaching as way to pass along information to students. She views teaching as a way to bring about change.

“The work of us as educators is to start a real loud revolution,” Moore told the audience this month at a teacher storytelling event co-sponsored by Chalkbeat. “The revolution will not happen without resistance, and social justice classrooms are the instruments of that resistance.”

Moore, a teacher at the Detroit Leadership Academy charter school, was one of four Detroit educators who told their stories on stage at the Tale the Teacher event held at the Lyft Lounge at MusicTown Detroit on October 6.

The event, organized by Western International High School counselor Joy Mohammed, raised about $120 that Mohammed said she used to buy a laptop for a student who needed it to participate on the school’s yearbook staff.

Over the next few weeks, Chalkbeat will be posting videos of the stories told at the event.

Moore, a self-proclaimed “black hip-hop Jesus feminist” opened her story with a memory of leaving a teacher training session four years ago to travel to Ferguson, Missouri, to be part of Labor Day weekend protests after Michael Brown, an unarmed 18-year-old African-American man, was fatally shot by a police officer.

“There was so much grief but also so much fight in that place,” she recalled. “I will never forget the moment I stood at the place that Mike Brown was killed. I will never forget the look in his mother’s face.”

She recalled bringing that experience back to Detroit and to her classroom.

“Imagine, after that weekend, returning back to the classroom on September 2nd,” she said. “I fought that weekend for Mike Brown … but I also did it for the 66 kids I would have that school year and every child I have had since then.”

Watch Moore’s full story here:

Video by Colin Maloney

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