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.

How I Teach

This Memphis teacher went viral for holding ‘class’ on Facebook Live during a snow day

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Candous Brown teaches one of her 12th-grade English classes at Raleigh-Egypt High School. Brown has been teaching in Memphis for 10 years.

How do teachers captivate their students? Here, in a feature we call How I Teach, we ask great educators how they approach their jobs. You can see other pieces in this series here.

When a week of snow days brought Candous Brown’s 12th-grade English class to a wintry halt, her students convinced her to take her lesson live on Facebook.

So wearing pajamas and with occasional photobombs by her 10-year-old son, Brown sat down at her laptop and convened an impromptu class with about 40 students from Raleigh-Egypt High School in Memphis. Some participants were actually previous students who decided to drop in.

“I’m so proud of y’all for actually wanting to do this,” she said at the outset, complimenting her students for their resourcefulness, ingenuity, and good use of technology.

The 33-year-old teacher has a knack for engaging her students where they are. That means frequently tapping into their love of music to grow their passion for literature.

“Why wouldn’t we focus on that?” she asks rhetorically.

During Black History Month, for instance, Brown pairs excerpts of Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1964 book “Why We Can’t Wait” with freedom songs from the documentary “Soundtrack for a Revolution.”

“I want them to know how music was utilized during the civil rights movement,” she said. “ In many instances, it was the thing that kept people motivated and unified.”

Chalkbeat spoke recently with Brown about teaching on Facebook Live and how she builds relationships with her students every day. (Her answers have been lightly edited for clarity.).

Why did you become a teacher?

I have always enjoyed literature and reading so it fit that I would be an English teacher.  As a student, my teachers would use me as a peer tutor.  I assisted classmates with their assignments and they would tell me I’d make a great teacher.  Of course, I would reject the idea; but looking back on it, they were leading me in the right direction.

What is one of your favorite lessons to teach? How did you come up with the idea?

I love teaching anything Shakespeare. But more recently, my favorite lesson has been to teach “The Hero’s Journey.” We were reading Beowulf and I wanted the students to trace Beowulf’s journey into the hero that we know him to be in today’s culture. When I first start the unit, I have them think of heros within their own lives. Or times when they felt like they were the hero in a situation. I want them to be able to connect this hero’s journey to themselves.  We read the text, participated in class discussion, did an analytical comparison of the movie and the text.  The students loved it.

Recently, you received national attention for holding class via Facebook Live during a snow day. Why was it important to make instructional time happen during that long break? How do you instill excitement for learning in your students?

That was actually my very first time going live. I was so nervous. I didn’t want to say something foolish and have the entire virtual world see my flub. I got up that morning, planned for some anticipated misconceptions, and went for it.

My students were the ones who set everything up. They asked if I’d be willing to do the lesson and, of course, I couldn’t say no when they were willing to do the work. I told them about my apprehensions and then one student used a phrase that I tell them when they are afraid to try something new: “First time for everything.” At that moment, I knew I had to do it. It was important to make it happen because they wanted it to happen. I always tell them that they cannot wait to be within the confines of a school to learn.

It pleased my soul that they were still attempting to do the work without me and that they trusted me enough to reach out. I think when they see me get excited or passionate about certain topics, it resonates with them.

How do you respond when a student doesn’t understand your lesson?

Students tend to shut down when they don’t understand a lesson. Then, they state the infamous sentence: “I don’t get it.” I force them to think about the lesson and target the source of confusion. They have to be able to explain the problem to me before I help them. More often than not, their own explanation of the misconception helps them figure out the issue on their own. Also, they know that I am a last resort.  They will ask a peer or neighbor before they ask me because they know I will make them explain everything they know before I will help. It forces them to explore their own understanding of the concept.

How do you get your class’s attention if students are talking or off task?

I usually don’t have to say or do much. My facial expressions do the talking for me.  Once the kids see my face, they tell each other to get it together before I start fussing.  Apparently, the last thing they want to hear from me is fussing.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Brown says her facial expressions can do the talking for her when her students get off track.

How do you get to know your students and build relationships with them? What questions do you ask or what actions do you take?

At the beginning of the school term, my students complete an “Interest Survey.” I participate with them and allow them to ask me questions. I figure if I’m asking them questions about their lives outside of the classroom, they should be allowed to ask the same of me, within reason. When the surveys are done, I file them. No one will see their answers but me. When appropriate, I incorporate things I learn about them into the lessons to make them more relatable. In that way, they know that I am paying attention and it opens the floor to them so that they know I am trustworthy and truly have their best interest at heart. I never demean them for the things they reveal and I don’t shy away from tough conversations. My door stays open to them unless I’m grading or planning.

What’s the best advice you ever received as a teacher?

To remember why I’m in the classroom. Sometimes, the classroom can be daunting and overwhelming. I have my students, I’m the single mother of a 10-year-old son and, on top of that, I’m working toward a master’s degree. I could easily get discouraged. But if I remember why I’m there, it becomes manageable. I am there to serve my students. I am there to lead my students. Those two things are never lost upon me.

school rules

Arkansas passed a law banning suspensions for truancy. Then it was largely ignored.

PHOTO: Andrea Chu

What if an education law passed, but nobody followed it?

That appears to be the bizarre situation in Arkansas, which in 2013 enacted a straightforward law banning out-of-school suspensions for truancy.

But three years later, nearly 1,100 students were still suspended for not showing up to school. Many Arkansas schools were simply not complying with the law, according to a new study.

What happened? It’s not entirely clear, but a communication breakdown may be to blame. The study notes that schools didn’t hear explicitly from the Arkansas Department of Education about the new law until January 2017.

The state disputes this — kind of — pointing to 2014 and 2015 memos, though neither actually mentions the rule change or acceptable penalties for truancy. A department spokesperson said the memos’ “regulatory authority” include the law banning suspensions.

“While [the department] does not track every phone call or correspondence, in general we have ongoing communication with educators, schools, districts and education service cooperatives,” said the spokesperson, Kimberly Friedman.

What’s clear is that only some Arkansas schools changed their practices. In the 2012-13 school year, about 14 percent of truancy cases resulted in out-of-school suspensions, and by 2015-16 that had dipped to 9 percent. It’s not clear whether that drop was due to the law.

(Notably, nearly 2 percent of truancy cases in 2015-16 resulted in corporal punishment, which remains legal in Arkansas public schools despite efforts by the federal government to eliminate the practice.)

The study, which was published last week in the peer-reviewed Peabody Journal of Education, also found that schools serving more students of color were less likely to have followed the law.

Schools with 10 percent more black students than average were about 5 percentage points less likely to eliminate suspensions for truancy. That finding underscores concerns from discipline reform advocates about the disproportionate effect suspensions have on students of color.

“The types of schools that the state was likely intending to impact … were also the types of schools that failed to comply,” researcher Kaitlin Anderson of Michigan State University wrote.

Although pointing to an outlier case, the paper highlights a key challenge of changing school discipline rules: laws and mandates are no guarantee of real change. That’s especially true if educators don’t believe in the changes, schools aren’t given the resources to change, there’s no enforcement of new guidelines — or if schools don’t know that rules have changed at all.

“You might expect [suspensions for truancy] to go down to 0 percent, but that would be if all schools knew about the law, were able to comply with the law, and wanted to comply with the law,” said Anderson.

It’s not the first study to highlight the challenges of instituting, and tracking, school discipline changes. After Philadelphia banned suspensions for certain lower-level offenses, more than three-quarters of schools did not fully comply, another recent paper found. In Washington, D.C., an investigation found that some schools simply didn’t report all out-of-school suspensions amid the district’s efforts to cut down on exclusionary discipline.

In other cases, though, policy changes are leading to fewer suspensions, at least according to official numbers. Los Angeles and New York City, for instance, have reported substantial drops in out-of-school suspensions in recent years.

A slide from research presented to the Arkansas Board of Education in February 2016. ISS refers to in-school suspensions, and OSS refers to out-of-school suspension.

In Arkansas, the back and forth over the new findings began in February 2016, when the researchers presented preliminary findings to the Arkansas State Board of Education. They reminded board members that suspensions for truancy were illegal and noted that “over 100 districts were still doing this as of 2014–15.”

Nearly a year later, in January 2017, the state commissioner of education issued a brief memo, which said that “State Board members requested the department remind districts” of the ban.

Friedman said there wasn’t data on whether schools are complying with the law this year, since schools don’t submit discipline reports to the state until June.

Arkansas now has another chance to tackle the challenge of implementing a new discipline policy. Just last year, the state passed a law prohibiting most out-of-school suspensions in in elementary school.

Anderson said that it makes sense for state leaders to engage local district and school officials more when trying to change how schools do business. “Having some of those conversations is going to be more productive in the long run rather than trying to just set a hand-offs, high-level policy,” she said.