Los Angeles Plans to Separate ELL Students in Elementary School

In an attempt to improve instruction for non-native English speaking students in California, the Los Angeles Unified School District has introduced a policy to separate elementary school students who are not fluent in English from native speakers in all core classes. This move has drawn criticism from parents and educators alike, as many see it as a form of segregation.

According to Gloria Goodale of The Christian Science Monitor, a plan separate Los Angeles elementary school students who are not fluent in English will, according to critics, make some students “second-class citizens” in their own schools. In response to a two-year-old federal civil rights lawsuit, the policy is an attempt to improve the performance of non-English-speaking students. As many as 50,000 district students classified as “English Language Learners” (ELLs) in kindergarten never become proficient according to test results.

This issue however is particularly urgent for the Los Angeles Unified School District because California is one of a handful of states that requires instruction in English, and LAUSD has almost 200,000 ELLs – nearly a third of their total enrollment.

According to Robert Hershberger, a Spanish professor and textbook author at DePauw University in Greencastle, Ind. such a move will add to the isolation and stigmatization of these learners. This renders “them as second-class citizens who don’t deserve the same treatment as their peers,” he says in an e-mail interview.

Edward Fierros, associate professor of education at Villanova University in Philadelphia, echoed Hershberger’s words by saying that the social and political ramifications are far-reaching.

“What we know from research on English Language Learners is that these populations are already hyper segregated in their communities,” he says via e-mail.   Latino ELLs tend to live in Spanish-speaking communities that are limited socially, politically, and economically, he says, and by systematically segregating ELLs in schools “these limitations are exacerbated.”

Research literature and common sense suggests that ELLs have a better opportunity to learn English if they are placed with their English-speaking peers as Ronald Solorzano, a former LAUSD bilingual elementary school teacher and current chairman of the education department at Occidental College, said.

“This language should not be taught in isolation, but rather in a diverse setting with their future peers and possible colleagues in attendance,” he says.

A delay in the implementation of the policy has been pushed by parents and teachers who have organized protests, but district officials say the protests are misinformed. Far from discounting the needs of ELL students, they say the plan is designed to address the needs directly, according to Hilda Maldonado, director of multilingual and multicultural education for LAUSD.

“What our research unearthed was that between 40,000 and 50,000 students who began in kindergarten as English language learners continue on into high school not ever having reached reclassification as English proficient,” she says. “That is part of the findings, and we are being held accountable.”

She continued by saying the policy is to intervene at the elementary level and create classes specifically tailored to meet those students’ needs.

Principals who are responsible for implementing the new policies at each school are being encouraged to mainstream children with limited English skills in non-core subjects such as physical education and art.

“Parents may not understand all the programming required for a full day,” says Ms. Hilda. “They are just reacting to the new rules.”