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English Learner services in public schools: How well are they working?

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First, a definition.

“An EL is a K-12 student who, based on objective assessment, has not developed listening, speaking, reading, and writing proficiencies in English sufficient for participation in the regular school program. These students are sometimes referred to as Limited English Proficient (LEP). The process for identification is described in the California English Language Development Test (CELDT) Assistance Packet for School Districts.”

- from the California Department of Education’s English Learners Frequently Asked Questions

California created the English Learner label because without specialized teaching in the basics, students wouldn’t understand what’s going on in the classroom.

“They come to school, they’re smart, some of them have been educated in their own country, some of them have good oral language skills from the home as young kindergarteners and they come to a setting where they don’t understand what’s going on in the classroom,” former teacher and administrator Shelly Spiegel-Coleman said.

A pre-enrollment survey asks parents if a child speaks a language at home other than English. If so, the child takes the CELDT test, which can take up to 45 minutes. Depending on how much English a student knows, he or she is assigned a level.

“A level 1 class would be providing basic, functional English and also introducing the student to the culture of schooling in the United States, in California,” Cal State Long Beach teacher education chair Paul Boyd-Batstone said.

But many other English Learner students were born and raised in the U.S. They need some academic language instruction as well as motivation skills, Boyd-Batstone said.

At Lynwood Unified, Assistant Superintendent Gudiel Crosthwaite said teachers group English learners based on skills within a larger class of students who aren’t English learners.

“It’s definitely a challenge for our staff because it is a lot of work and in order to address their needs a teacher has to constantly understand how a child is progressing in language arts, math, etc.,” he said.

The goal is to have English learners test well enough to transition into standard instruction. Crosthwaite said his district could do more to identify all English learners and give them all the help they need.

The success of California’s English Learners varies, according to the Public Policy Institute of California.

The California Department of Education keeps a tally of how many students school districts are not providing English learner instruction to as required by law.

In a lawsuit last year against California the ACLU found school districts identified 20,000 English learners getting no services.  Education access activist Shelly Spiegel-Coleman said she’s not surprised.

“The issue is - what is the accountability system in the state of California for not just the 20,000 students that the school districts self identify, but what’s the monitoring and what’s the accountability system for services to English learners across the state,” she said.

Those are the same questions the US Justice Department’s Office of Civil Rights is asking California officials in its ongoing investigation of the state’s English learner services.

California offers a lot of information about English Learner services here.