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April 1, 2009
Vol. 66
No. 7

Perspectives / In the Neighborhood

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Tucked off a busy highway lined with fast-food restaurants, pharmacies, and megadiscount stores—five minutes from my subdivision and within a mile of multimillion-dollar homes—thousands of the county's residents live in trailer parks and lower-income housing. Many are immigrants, primarily from El Salvador, Mexico, Venezuela, Sierra Leone, and Pakistan. Among their most pressing needs, after providing food for their families and finding employment, is learning to speak English.
Several hundred come for help to a small social agency I recently visited. This particular agency offers English as a second language and citizenship classes, advice about avoiding financial scams and legal snafus, and counseling about everything from how to open a bank account to how to deal with teenage pregnancy. An important part of its mission is to connect people with the right resources. Consequently, the executive director knows the region's schools very well.
She was candid in her assessment of what the local schools are doing—and not doing—to work with immigrant students and their families. She praised several administrators to the skies. For example, a middle school principal schedules Saturday morning classes for English language learners who are falling behind. The families value that extra help. A high school principal each year arranges for her English language learners taking the International Baccalaureate program to mentor the teens coming to the center. "What great role models these students are!" the agency director exclaimed. And many schools have hired parent liaisons to help families figure out the logistics of school operations. Because much is accomplished by word of mouth in the immigrant communities, this connection is vital.
But other schools, in the director's estimation, are not doing so well. She notes a connection between high ELL dropout rates and these schools' lack of outreach. The social needs of families don't seem to be on the radar screen. The students believe that their school's priorities don't involve them. They feel, if not invisible, unknown.
This issue of Educational Leadership addresses the need to take a look at who English language learners are. They are, in fact, a very diverse population, made up of different subgroups requiring different instructional strategies. The variety of languages spoken by the nearly 5.1 million English language learners in U.S. schools is not the only difference among them. Their parents' English language proficiency and literacy levels in their first language matter, and so does family financial and social status. How long students have been in the country matters, as does the kind of education they have received in the past. Although students from immigrant families are the fastest-growing segment of the ELL population, they don't account for all the children who are labeled English language learners. Indeed, one needs multiple Venn diagrams to sort the overlapping and divergent categories of the students called ELLs. One statistic that reverberates, however, is that 42 percent of them drop out of high school.
But there's good news about educating ELLs—and it's abundant in this issue. We know so much more than we used to. Many programs—from dual language (p. 54) to structured English immersion (p. 42) to a mix of programs (p. 14)—work with different groups of students. A great variety of strategies—from building on prior knowledge (pp. 26, 70) to vocabulary building (p. 26) to narrow reading (p. 38)—are effective. And we know that ELLs do better when given extended instructional time. As Judith Rance-Roney (p. 32) reports, ELLs have much to learn and little time to learn it.
Although our authors advocate differing programs, they tend to agree about the following: Knowing two or more languages is a 21st-century asset, for students and for teachers. There is no doubt that we need more culturally knowledgeable teachers who are proficient in both English and the learners' native languages. But whether educators know several languages or not, team-based support from everyone in the school is essential so that ELLs gain full access to learning not only language, but also content.
Finally, we need to know not just our students but their families as well. As Fred Ramirez and Ivannia Soto-Hinman (p. 79) write, we must become aware of the communities around our school. One way of doing so is "community travel." Starting at the school, travel two or three miles on three different occasions, taking different routes each time. Observe.
Instead of speeding by communities, we might slow down and get to know our neighbors.

Marge Scherer has contributed to Educational Leadership.

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