President’s Message: Susan Heredia
A unique opportunity to support English learner students
As education leaders, we’ve all witnessed the toll the pandemic has taken on students, staff and families. Many of us have experienced loss and pain in our homes. Some of the trauma has been captured by the media but much of the impact flies underneath the radar. That is particularly true where English learners are concerned.

I’ve read countless articles about students with no internet or poor connections, about struggles with mental health and social isolation, about disengagement from school and declining academic performance. Our English learner students are coping with all these challenges — often at a greatly disproportionate level — while simultaneously trying to learn in a school system that is not designed to serve their needs. As a result, the pandemic has compounded the ongoing disparities between English learners and their peers.

More than 1.1 million students in California, nearly 20 percent, are considered English learners and as a 2021 report from Policy Analysis for California Education (PACE), indicates, this group of students is losing ground academically. PACE looked at assessments for students in grades 4 through 10, across 18 districts, and compared scores from fall 2019 to 2020 to results from the previous three years. The study found that, “in nearly every grade in [English language arts] in early grades for Math, across both assessments, ELLs have lost substantially more learning than other students. In some grades, the impact is quite severe.”

Susan Heredia headshot
“Districts have a unique opportunity to not only mitigate the impact of COVID-19 on English learners, but also create a better long-term model for educating this group of students.”
Susan Heredia, CSBA President
And the academic impact of the pandemic is not limited to standardized exams — it is having a devastating effect on classroom performance and, by extension, the life prospects of our young people. In March 2021, Los Angeles Unified School District, where roughly 20 percent of students are English learners, reported that a whopping 42 percent of grades earned by English learners in high school were Ds and Fs. That amounted to an increase of 10 percentage points from the prior year — and a percentage higher than that of any other group except unhoused youth. Closer to where I live, in Sacramento City USD, 44 percent of all students who stopped attending school after in-person instruction was paused were English learners.

As disheartening as these statistics are, districts have a unique opportunity to not only mitigate the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on English learners, but also create a better long-term model for educating this group of students. Not only are schools receiving an infusion of funds to pay for initiatives aimed at learning recovery, the California Legislature has also created specific grant programs to better support English learners as schools return to full-time, in-person instruction statewide.

The COVID relief package signed into law this March included $2 billion for In-Person Instruction Grants and $4.6 billion for Expanded Learning Opportunities (ELO) Grants. In addition, the new budget bill provides $753.1 million in one-time Proposition 98 funding to establish the ELO Grant Program.

In order to be eligible for those grants, school districts and county offices of education must provide dedicated academic and social-emotional supports for English learners and other groups that have been historically underserved as well as disproportionately impacted during the pandemic.

Californians Together, a nonprofit devoted to promoting high-quality education for English learners, has produced a list of five insightful recommendations to help districts develop or expand programs that are grant-eligible and especially beneficial for English learner students. To meet the needs of English learners, ELO programs should be engaging, enriching and joyful and incorporate the following components:

  • Project-based and experiential learning
  • Social-emotional learning
  • English language development instruction and assessment
  • Differentiation for different typologies of ELs
  • Culturally and linguistically relevant practices

School districts and county offices of education across California are already employing these principles in ways that provide excellent models for schools looking to replicate effective programs that serve English learners. Californians Together has highlighted some of the most promising practices:

Azusa USD extended instructional learning time by offering three 12-day sessions of summer learning acceleration for students, with priority enrollment and multidisciplinary units for English learners and sessions in Spanish for students in bilingual programs. Oakland USD is assigning teacher leaders, teacher assistants and social workers to schools with a high concentration of newcomers (students who are relatively recent immigrants to the United States) in order to facilitate small group instruction and allow teachers to provide linguistic and cultural supports.

In West Contra Costa USD, staff is using social and emotional surveys to establish baseline data and track progress multiple times during the school year. English learner families will also “receive direct counselor communications, including referrals and access to available resources,” with all the information translated into home languages. The district has also added a homeroom advisory period for all grades where “teachers will provide social-emotional learning via a variety of curricular options.” The Whittier Union HSD is providing comprehensive training for parent volunteers to support English learners and other parents in finding online resources, monitoring grades, and strengthening students’ social-emotional well-being. Parent mentors also attend District English Learner Advisory Committee workshops, co-facilitate and coordinate parent events, and serve as ambassadors for the program.

These school districts are just few of the local educational agencies that are using innovative, research-based approaches to support the English learner population that accounts for nearly one in every five California public school students. We haven’t always done well by English learners, but the timing is better than ever to make amends and chart a new trajectory for these students and for all Californians.

See the full fact sheet from Californians Together at