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A Restorative Start for English Learners typography
Supporting language learners requires a systems approach
by Kimberly Sellery
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tudents returned to campuses in person at the beginning of the 2021–22 school year, many for the first time since March 2020, with a sense of excitement, and for many, apprehension and nervousness.

As teachers and education leaders welcome students back to classrooms, they must keep in mind the different ways in which the pandemic and distance learning affected students. From difficulties accessing online content to needing to care for younger siblings to experiencing the pain of COVID-19 in their own families, research is already showing that remote learning exacerbated longstanding opportunity and achievement gaps experienced by student groups such as low-income youth and English learners.

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alifornia has the largest population of students learning English in addition to their home language — 1.2 million EL students, who account for 20 percent of the state’s K-12 student population. Nearly four in 10 students in the state are current or former ELs and improving this group’s educational outcomes is imperative for their future success — and the future of California. In 2018–19, just over half of EL students across all grades in California did not meet English language art standards on the Smarter Balanced assessments and less than half met the math standards.

English learners also faced many additional challenges during the pandemic. According to a survey conducted in late November 2020 by Next100 of 145 school or district staff across 20 states, 67 percent of educators said their EL students were not doing well or were only doing slightly well; 55 percent believe that they were either not serving their English learners well or were serving them only somewhat well; and 64 percent did not feel well-supported to provide ELs with the services they need to succeed academically.

“Two things that education leaders should keep in mind as English learners return to school is that they had a real lack of access to language development,” said Manuel Buenrostro, policy associate with Californians Together, an advocacy organization that promotes access to quality education for the state’s English learners. “They were not able to get that direct, in-person instruction from teachers, which is critical for them, and they were not able to interact with their classmates, which is a big part of language development — being able to share language and interact with your classmates. And on top of that is the trauma that comes with a pandemic, because a lot of our English learners are low-income students or they are students of color and, within those populations, you have higher rates of transmission, and they are more likely to have experienced a death in the family.”

A restorative start this school year includes supporting EL students’ social-emotional well-being, building strong partnerships with families, ensuring meaningful access to the full curriculum, and relying on research-based instruction, according to a June 2020 brief, “A Vision for California’s Schools this Fall: Equity for Dual Language and English Learners in an Unprecedented Moment,” a joint publication of seven nonprofit organizations, including Californians Together and Sobrato Early Academic Language.

Re-engaging English learner students
A large body of research shows that prioritizing students’ social-emotional well-being contributes to better academic outcomes. This centering of relationships is one key component of the “Welcoming and Affirming Community Toolkit” from Sobrato Early Academic Language, or SEAL. SEAL is a comprehensive model of enriched language and literacy instruction for all students and is especially helpful for English learner students. It was created by Laurie Olsen, who also was key in designing the state’s English Learner Roadmap policy.

SEAL partners with educational leaders across California, in over 100 elementary schools across 21 districts, working to transform the system by providing professional development, curriculum support and technical assistance for educators. A five-year evaluation of SEAL found that, despite starting school with language and academic skills behind their peers, SEAL students catch up or surpass peers on all measures, from language and literacy to math and science.

“We realized prioritizing the nurturing of students’ socioemotional well-being and supporting their academic progress will be super important this year,” said Marna Ledesma, SEAL program and coach coordinator. “In order for recovery and acceleration to happen, the needs of our students, staff and families have to be met. This toolkit addresses the needs of English learners, builds relationships and teaches content that is academically rich and engaging within welcoming, affirming and inclusive classrooms.”

The toolkit is coming to life in the Newark Unified School District in the Bay Area where SEAL coaches Kim Nickerson and Makayla Ashmore-Hoback are just beginning year three of implementation — which has been a bit of a roller coaster ride with school closures interrupting the full implementation of the program in 2020. SEAL coaches work with everyone in the school ecosystem to provide professional development, unit demonstrations and observations, ensuring classrooms are language-rich and academically rigorous and giving teachers strategies to improve in these areas.

In 2018–19, just over half of EL students across all grades in California did not meet English language art standards on the Smarter Balanced assessments and less than half met the math standards.
The asset-based approach is what Nickerson is most excited about, and what she sees making a big difference in her students’ lives. “One of the things that I keep hearing from the teachers is how much pride the kids are having in their culture,” she said. “The students get this home and school connection that maybe wasn’t there before.”

One important component of starting the school year — in addition to formative assessments to get students talking and see where their language skills lie — was the family interview, done with each EL student and their family at the beginning of the year. “I think teachers were able to get a lot of information that they would not have gotten potentially in conversations until report card time. They were able to get an idea of how COVID affected them in order to form strategies to support that student,” said Ashmore-Hoback.

Targeting needs

With the influx of state and federal COVID-19 relief funding to schools, local educational agencies need to be targeted and thoughtful with their use, advised Buenrostro. “Be specific about the services the district is going to be providing,” he said. “Be clear about the goals that you have for your English learners. And, even better, be very specific about the different typologies of English learners that you’re going to serve and how you’re going to serve them.”

Two districts targeting funds to specific English learner populations are San Juan USD in Sacramento County, which serves a large population of newcomer students, and Chula Vista Elementary School District in south San Diego County, which is using funding specifically for its long-term English learners, or LTELs.


While San Juan USD has a strong program that supports all students including English learners, its offerings for newcomers, or students coming to the U.S. from another country — often under stressful circumstances — are particularly dynamic. The district invested relief funding to support and expand existing programs, as well as to hire additional staff, such as English Language Development (ELD) teachers, bilingual instructional aides, social workers and community resource assistants. San Juan USD has a large population of Afghan refugee families and has tailored programs to this population for years. From the moment a new family enrolls, they are greeted and given a contact person that speaks their home language, along with a backpack of school supplies and translation materials. A Saturday school program offers intense language acquisition paired with physical activity and social-emotional learning for students in grades K-8, while the program for grades 9-12 focuses on credit recovery.

An interesting component of these programs is that the district hires about 100 bilingual students to support teachers in the classroom for Saturday school and a six-week summer program. “We’re using these students’ language in the classroom and their content knowledge to support the classroom teacher to help reach students that speak other languages,” said Christina Burkhart, program specialist on the Newcomer Support Team. “Not only are those kids learning work ethic — how to be professional, punctual, all these essential skills that they need to be workers in the future — but other kids are seeing them and thinking, ‘Oh wow. Somebody from my culture is getting paid by a school district.’ It opens up possibilities for them.”

Family nights and an English learner soccer league provide some of the family–school engagement that is essential for a successful transition to the American school system. This year, the district added parent learning components to the Saturday school offerings, explained Board President Paula Villescaz.

“We recognize that there is a really significant need to bring in the whole family and connecting families with each other through things like family nights on campuses,” Villescaz said. “We also have our neighborhood learning projects, where staff go out to apartment complexes, to the neighborhoods, to introduce themselves and remove some of the barrier of unfamiliarity.”

A recent influx of Afghan refugee families has made this work even more important for the San Juan USD school board, who are often seen attending district events, recognizing accomplishments at board meetings and continuing to advocate for the resources to support all students, especially the most vulnerable. “Our work is really about advocacy for the district, supporting staff, making sure that needed resources are included in our budgets and our efforts, and, of course, continuing to advocate specifically for appropriate resources,” Villescaz said.

Long-Term English Learners

Social-emotional learning has been a priority in Chula Vista ESD for the last few years, and COVID-19 relief funding allowed the district to expand parts of its program, such as hiring counselors and social workers for each of its more than 40 school sites.

The district also invested funding to create full-time Impact Teacher positions. These teachers were selected from among current staff who have experience with the school and the community and are assigned to work with particular students providing one-on-one or small group supplemental instruction. The caveat? In order to make the instructional time effective, the teachers are limited to 55 students at a time.

The district aligned the plan with their priority groups in the Local Control and Accountability Plan and prioritized foster and homeless youth and Long-Term English Learners, according to Lalaine Perez, Chula Vista ESD executive director for Language Development and Instruction Services and Support.

“This is a group of students where their teachers knew that they were Long-Term English Learners or at risk of becoming LTELs, but we didn’t have anything specific to support them, besides our regular monitoring, making sure they’re in small group instruction, getting designated ELD and making annual progress,” Perez said. “These are students who are with us anywhere from four to six years and still have not been reclassified. So, we put this profile of English learner at the forefront of our support because we know if we need to get them ready for middle school and high school so that they can have access and be successful in the A-G courses and be on track to be college and career ready, we needed to intervene now.”

Along with updating its English Learner Master Plan, Chula Vista ESD has prioritized ELD professional development for all teachers and school principals as well as monitoring and accountability measures to ensure alignment and implementation. Supporting this work is an underlying focus on equity that has been uplifted by the Chula Vista ESD board of trustees.

“The equity policy talks about the district’s approach in eradicating bias and racism, ensuring that we’re addressing barriers to learning for all of our students and valuing their unique backgrounds and needs,” Perez said. “It also talks about leveraging funding to ensure that we’re providing high-quality resources for our students that make their learning accessible. And so that equity policy, I think, is kind of the umbrella for ensuring that our emergent bilingual, multilingual or linguistically diverse students are recognized and valued and that their needs are being addressed as an entire system.”

The systems approach is also important in San Juan USD. “It really takes a team effort from the staff,” said Mary Ponce, program manager of the district’s English Learner and Multicultural Education Department. “From San Juan central enrollment to the EL Department supporting staff at school sites, to ELD teachers at school sites to bilingual instructional assistants — I think, districtwide, all departments contribute a variety of support. Many school sites now have their own school community resource assistants, and of course our counselors or social workers come together as a team to support our ELs. We also have a department of MTSS, multi-tiered system of supports, that work with school sites to create those systems.”

Buenrostro of Californians Together echoed that need for cooperation throughout the entire school system. “English Language Development needs to be something that is the responsibility of all educators within the system,” he said. “Along with having goals to hire multilingual staff, all of your teachers should be ready and prepared to provide language development within instruction. And that means providing the appropriate professional development and ensuring that teachers are participating and making it meaningful.”

Kimberly Sellery is managing editor for California Schools.