Paying attention to reforms that work for English learners

While the politics of education reform swirl all around us, it’s important to keep clear on what works and what doesn’t. The good news is that the Denver Public Schools is actually doing very well in supporting a particular segment of our student population, English learners. The confusing part is that we seem ready to ignore that fact and follow a path that is completely divergent from real, lasting reform. The right path to close the achievement gap and provide opportunity for all Denver’s students is clear, and we would do well to heed the evidence.

In 1999, the Department of Justice won a decision on behalf of the Congress of Hispanic Educators which asserted that the Denver Public Schools lacked adequate programs for students of limited English proficiency. DPS was ordered to allow parents to choose either full Spanish-language instruction, sheltered instruction (English with instructions in Spanish) or complete English immersion for their children (Click here to read those court documents).

Around 35 percent of DPS students are classified as English language learners (ELLs). Not all these students come from Spanish-speaking homes; they also speak Vietnamese, Arabic, Somali, Nepali, and Karen/Burmese. Spanish-speaking students represent around 57 percent of DPS’ ELL population.

The CSAPs taken in March 2011 show that “exited” ELLs, or those students who now are proficient enough to be placed in English-only classrooms, outperform district averages. Keeping in mind that these standardized tests are only an indicator of performance, these students also have surpassed Asian/Pacific Islander and Anglo students in many categories. These exited ELLs now take the CSAP in English.

The following graphs show the percentages of elementary-aged ELLs scoring at or above proficiency in subjects tested by CSAP. ELLs outperform their Anglo counterparts in reading, writing and math and are very competitive with Asian students in science.

In middle school, ELLs outperform Asian students in reading, writing and math, though they lag behind them in science, as well as behind their Anglo counterparts in all areas.

Finally, for high schoolers, ELLs outperform the district average in all subjects except science.

DPS clearly successfully prepares ELLs for an English-speaking world and is rapidly closing the achievement gap. In just a few short years, we will see impressive overall improvement in the rates of students testing at or above proficiency on the CSAPs. Obviously, one of the best reform tools is the ELA program used in our neighborhood schools.

However, few of the most recent innovation schools approved by the Board of Education feature ELA programs as found in our neighborhood schools. The overwhelming majority of teachers hired at these new schools are uncertified and therefore do not have the credentials to teach in our ELA classrooms. None of our charter schools provide parents the right to choose appropriate instruction for their children, nor do they offer any ELA program at all.

If our ELA programs work so well for such a significant number of our students, why wouldn’t we insist upon them in every school, or just require new schools to meet certain criteria?

There is also the issue of civil rights. The 1999 court decision also found that DPS was in violation of the Educational Opportunities Act of 1974, Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, and Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, which guarantee all students the right to equal educational opportunity. If education truly is the civil rights issue of our time, we should ensure that every school, public, charter or innovation, meets or exceeds our ELA program found in neighborhood schools.

Our ELA program is there for the taking, and all a parent need do is ask. There is no application or lottery, only an aptitude test to make recommendations to the parent. There is no special grant needed to pay for it; it’s a normal expenditure in our budget. But in our pell-mell hurtle toward “innovation,” we have stripped away opportunity from the children that most need support. For non-English speaking parents, there is no longer a choice. ELLs now desperately hunt for a school that could serve them or just simply flounder without support. We have become a district that creates diasporas, not opportunity.

The path to closing the achievement gap and, therefore, a strong school district, is to ensure that all our students have equitable opportunities to robust and challenging academics. We have to reform schools according to the needs of the kids actually in our schools, not for kids we might wish we had.

This November, the Board will consider approval of a few new schools. Denver residents, please tell your elected board representatives at board@dpsk12.org to first carefully consider the actual needs of our children and to put sound educational policy in place of ideology or buzzwords. It is, after all, for the kids.

P.S.: You can read up on other policy issues, sign up for my newsletter, etc., at my website, www.andreamerida.com. Proud to be the only school board member in Colorado with an outreach-focused website!

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