When I hear the word initiative in a school district, the word to me connotes something temporary. Please don’t take this as negativity. In my experience as an educator, the average school district holds an initiative for five to ten years. Ten years if it’s one that is really beneficial for kids. It doesn’t mean that they are bad ideas, it’s just that better ones come later. Now, it is important for us to understand that initiatives are programs, ideas, and ways of teaching. With this in mind, many of times I have sat down in school, district level meetings, and so on where I hear the leader use the phrase “our ELL initiative”. When I hear this, 1) I cringe. 2) I ask myself the question: “Do these leaders think that our populations will just be here for a couple of years then just fade away or leave?” Our ELL students are here to stay. We all are here to stay. We are more than a “thing” that comes and goes after a couple of years. We are students, families, hopes, dream and stories. See us. Listen to us. Include us.
This article is geared towards Superintendents, Principals, and other leaders who are agents for change in their school communities. We are all working together to assure that are our English Learners are in an environment that provides them with harmony. This is a stable environment where there will be a growing trajectory of students. I have not heard once in my career a Superintendent say “Our district’s ELL population is declining.” Regardless of what is happening in our country politically, our numbers will grow. “In 2016, the number of emerging bilingual children rose to roughly 12 million, an increase of 1.2 million over the past decade.” (Mitchell 2018) As Mitchell, describes this analysis of data by the Annie E. Casey Foundation's Kids Count Data Center, he is describing America, a nation built by immigrants. It’s time to grow with us and learn with us. We’re going to continue to expand.
Once upon a time, a K-5 Elementary school had five ELL students and one ELL teacher (possibly shared with another building in their district). They are using a pull out model that is supported by “the ELL version of the boxed curriculum” to serve their students. They really don’t associate with the general education team teachers accept to “pick up their kids” and get them for 30 minutes of required service. Now they have one hundred students and now two full time teachers. They are also still using the same program model and the same curriculum. And they are still, “picking up their kids”. “[S]ome research has shown that while the number of English-as-a-second-language speakers in schools is on the rise, the quality of education those students receive in the nation's K-12 schools is not” (Mitchell 2018). What’s wrong with this?
When populations grow, we really need to set up our communities for that growth. The solution I usually hear is: ”Okay, we’ll hire another teacher.” Yes, staffing is important and having the right amount of teachers for the right amount of students to receive equitable service is vital. Fifty kids per ELL service specialist is not equitable. Thirty minutes of service daily is not really support. But it needs to really be “the right amount” of. Teachers need to provide students with the support through detailed instructional planning. Think of it this way, “Would you want your surgeon to operate on you and 49 other people in the same day?” You’re not going to get the quality service you would if they were only operating a few more people.
The change that is made in responding to the growth of English Learners in your district also has to move beyond human capital. Our programs need to move beyond “compliance” and to benefitting students who really need support. We need to think about what types of curricular supports are needed. How do we train teachers --general education and ELL specialists-- for the rising amount of students? How can we need to think about school wide strategies to support our robust ELL population?
How do we figure this out? It really to comes down to developing appropriate forums to discuss change for communities with growth in their English Learner programs. Read more about that here. Look at your English Learner communities. Look at your language groups, your proficiency levels of students, and what your community of English Learner families values. This will really help you “see us more” before you think about making changes that are programmatic and curricular.
What is planning an expansion of an English Learner program like if you have really not gotten know their cultures or communities? Are you really listening to your communities? If you haven’t had a conversation with your stakeholders, you are walking without a vision. It’s kind of like walking around at night with no vision and hoping that you don’t bump into anything. You need to develop a vision as you are growing. Growing… growing… growing. We are growing. Knowing that the growth is happening should lead to substantial planning. But where does that planning start?
As you’re working with your staff and stakeholders to plan for the expansion of the English Learner program, ask yourself how much English Learner parent voice you have had in your programming decisions. Take some time to learn a community. This may take you out of your comfort zone. Visiting local community centers that support your English Learner population and their places of worship can teach you a lot about their needs in your schools. Don’t worry about feeling uncomfortable in those settings or feeling like an intruder. Seeing a school leader in a community center or place of worship that a family frequents helps families feel more comfortable.
The book Building Equity: Policies and Practices to Empower All Learners describes a school that had an increase of East African families that joined their school community. They began to wonder why parents from this community were not coming to PTO or school meetings. When school leaders met with the local imam, they learned a lot about the community and started have more meetings with the community periodically. The school officials and PTO President learned about the community’s hospitality at these meetings and grew to have a voice for them. (Smith, Frey, Pumpian, & Fisher 2017). The more comfortable families are with you, the more they will talk to you about how to support them. Try to hear your families, and don’t make the common mistakes that districts make when engaging English Learner families. Read more about that here.
Have Empathy For Us
When you hear our voices, you begin to have empathy for us. Developing that empathy can support your leadership in building programs that are good for students. One way you can do this is following an ELL students’ schedule for a day, also known as “student shadowing”. I know that we have busy schedules, but when you take the time to understand the “why” behind the importance of having a program model and a foundation of strategies that fit for English Learners, it will save you time later in wondering how you can “bridge the achievement gap.”
To continue to learn more about the communities you serve, read picture and Young Adult Literature books that focus on the communities you serve with narrators from the communities. Those books can be become windows for you to learn the mindset of characters in the communities. As you learn more, those windows you are looking out of become doors for you as open them to build opportunities for your students. Read more about providing windows for students here.
Another way to develop more empathy for your English Learners is to learn another language yourself- you don’t know one already. You can use an app like Duolingo to help you. Feel the struggle that the students you serve feel. It will really make you think twice about giving them the 30 minute pull out lessons daily. You’ll see the why behind language support and using ELL strategies in all classrooms in your school or district. Read more about developing empathy for your language learners here.
Advocate For Us
Yes, advocate for us! When your ELL Coordinator or Director is asking for your support in changing programming to support student needs, support this change. I’ve seen so many school leaders do a great job in aiding the ELL leadership in implementing new strategies throughout entire buildings I’ve seen principals and superintendents really take the time to learn the strategies and programming models well. I’ve also seen some who have said, “leave it to the ELL leader, not my job” but we can’t think of it that way. Our English Learners are all of our students. We need to really take a stand and advocate them. As leaders, it is important to learn about, communicate with, and budget for our English Learner communities.
Advocating means really take a stand for the population because we aren’t going anywhere. We’re all here to stay. We’re not an initiative that is only here for a few years, then leaves. We are growing. Growing with us will benefit English Learners but also all learners in our schools and communities.
Education Week. (2018, January 17). Rising Number of ESL Students Pose Challenges for Schools. [Blog post]. Retrieved from http://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/learning-the-language/2018/01/rising_number_of_esl_students_pose_challenges_for_schools.html
Fisher, D. Frey, N. Pumpian, I. Smith, D. (2017) Building Equity: Policies and Practices to Empower All Learners. Alexandria, VA: ASCD