English Language Learners in Essential Schools

We recognize the fact that no two of our students are exactly the same, and that each changes over time. All this bubbling variety is inconvenient. It would be handy if each thirteen year old was a standardized being, pumping no more or fewer hormones than any other thirteen year old and speaking no language other than formal English. Life as a teacher would be easier if each of our charges was so predictable.

—Ted Sizer, Opening Remarks, 2002 Coalition of Essential Schools Fall Forum

In this issue, Horace focuses on several Coalition schools that help students navigate the dual challenge of learning English while mastering mathematics, the sciences, the arts, and humanities. These schools—in New York City, Chicago, Paterson, New Jersey, Oakland, California, and North Kansas City, Missouri—share commitments to create the best conditions for student learning across the curriculum and within the sphere of English language acquisition. Despite differences in locale, student age groups, and approaches to second language acquisition, educators at these schools agree that Coalition practices and values—knowing individual students well, focusing on equity among all students, and asking students to demonstrate mastery in specific, authentic ways—work well to support language minority students to achieve academically and personally.

Bilingual and ESL Education: Definitions and History

While the presence of language minority students—students whose primary language is not English—has been a factor in United States schools for centuries, identifying and agreeing on the best ways to teach such students continues to challenge policymakers, schools, and communities. Most recently, this tension has rebounded between advocates of English-Only policies, who suggest, according to the U.S. English Foundation, Inc., that “learning English quickly and learning it with English-speaking peers is the best way for English learners to get ahead academically and socially,” and advocates of bilingual education, such as the National Association for Bilingual Education, which maintains, “not only do children in well-designed bilingual programs acquire academic English as well or better than children in English-Only programs but they do much better in academic content subjects such as math and science.”

Federal legislation, including the 1968 Bilingual Education Act, mandates that schools offer equal opportunities for language minority students. States and communities developed bilingual programs—in which students learn across the subject areas both in English and their heritage language—and English as a Second Language (ESL) programs (or programs with similar names and intentions)—in which students participate primarily in English with specialized English language support. Schools choose between ESL and bilingual services for varied reasons; for example, a school without a sufficiently high concentration of a particular language group to build a bilingual program may take an ESL approach, while another school may use both methods. Local and state policies also drive schools’ approaches. Referenda against bilingual education in California (1998), Arizona (2000), and Massachusetts (2002) have focused national attention on deep disagreements about the best strategies to serve minority language students and their communities.

A Steep Increase in the Number of English Language Learners

According to the United States Department of Education’s Office of English Language Acquisition, Language Enhancement and Academic Achievement for Limited English Proficient Students, the percentage of limited English proficient (LEP) students enrolled in kindergarten through twelfth grade nationwide from 1991—1992 through 2001-2002 has increased 95%, from 2,430,712 students to 4,747,763 students. During the same decade, the overall school-aged population has increased 12%. (For additional statistical information about limited English proficient students in United States schools, see “The Growing Numbers of Limited English Proficient Students, 1991-2002,” pages 17-18.) Many, but not all, of these students are recent immigrants; a significant percentage of English language learners (ELLs) are born in the United States
to families that don’t speak English at home.

Schools in communities nationwide have experienced the effects of this rapid increase. North Kansas City High School,a Coalition school in North Kansas City, Missouri, represents the scope and diversity of language minority students. Sara Boyd, veteran North Kansas City ELL teacher reports, “There were twenty-five ELL students in the high school ten years ago, mostly Vietnamese speakers. Now there are 140 ELL students. We have thirty-one Spanish speakers, seventeen Sudanese, twenty-five Bosnian Serbs, twenty-two Kurds, and ten Vietnamese. Our school has students from twenty-four different countries, including France, Sierra Leone, Somalia, India, Russia, Iran, Micro-nesia, Liberia, and Poland, who speak eighteen different languages.” The school has responded to this rapid growth by quadrupling its ELL teaching staff within a decade, and Boyd and other North Kansas City staff members anticipate continued expansion.

North Kansas City High School takes an ESL approach rather than attempting to offer bilingual classes to such a diverse group; they aim to support students as they attain or maintain age-appropriate, grade-level academic performance across the subject areas in English. A valuable strategy for the ELL staff is collaboration with non-ESL teachers within subject-area classrooms; Boyd co-teaches World History with a general curriculum instructor. “We have ten ESL kids in the class and keep the same pace and class curriculum as the other students. I support not only the ESL students but everyone. I bring a lot visual elements to the learning to underscore the language-intensive discussions. I do review sessions and both ESL and non-ESL kids attend. It’s good for our kids too mix with American kids, to work on projects together. The immersion works for our kids.”

English Language Learners Benefit Dramatically from Personalization, Meaningful Work, and Each Other

Manhattan International High School, founded in 1993 and located in the Julia Richman Educational Complex, is devoted to working with newly arrived immigrants who are in the process of learning English. William Ling, Manhattan International’s principal, observes that his 315 students, who speak fifty-two different languages and come from thirty-six different nations, thrive in an atmosphere where teachers know them well. Manhattan International staff members focus on building a strong, supportive, and safe school culture. “We have a smaller, more intimate environment,” Ling describes. “While students are diverse, they’re all immigrants, and this creates unity—they’re all here because they want to learn English and get a good education. And we have a school culture
that’s at peace with itself. Nothing tolerated that is racist or sexist; there are no threats. Students and teachers can concentrate on their jobs, teaching and learn -ing. It’s very mellow, very peaceful. Kids concentrate on learning, not watching their backs. They have extended contact with adults in a work environment. Our periods are longer, so learning is less rushed. We are project-oriented and activities-based. All of those things combine to pay attention to student needs. Having students learn at a pace that’s more comfortable for them provides more support.”

New York City’s Bronx International High School, now in its second year, serves a similar population as Manhattan International. Principal Shael Polakow-Suransky concurs that a student-as-worker oriented curriculum creates fertile conditions for English acquisition. “Our curriculum is project-based and kids have something important and meaningful to learn about,” Polakow-Suransky says. “It’s really supportive for language development. Kids need to talk with each other and interact on multiple levels. They use their language skills much more than if they were in teacher-centered classrooms. If kids are in a context where they need to use English to engage with each other, it will be more important and meaningful to them, especially if their academic work is important and meaningful. We try to figure out in science and social studies and math how to create assignments that make kids want to use language and communicate with each other. We don’t tell them what language to use, but eventually kids are pulled toward English.”

At Manhattan International School, Earth Science teacher Vinnie Tangredi co-teaches Origins and Perspectives, with Global Studies teacher Michael Soet and English teacher Amy Schnabel. The team works with Level I students, new to the school and at the start of their English language acquisition. Tangredi values projects such as studying maps, in which students demonstrate understanding of map keys and legends and knowledge of longitude and latitude by studying local subway maps, U.S. and world maps, and constructing a map of a section of Central Park. Tangredi says, “I try to touch as many modalities as I can, and working on projects in groups gives students reasons to read and write and speak together.” (For more strategies for working with ELL students, see “English Language Teaching Strategies: Ideas from ASCEND,” p. 21)

Amy Schnabel, one of Tangredi’s teaching partners, emphasizes the powerful influence English Language Learners have on each other as they learn to integrate English both socially and academically. “At this stage in their lives, they’re so strongly influenced by their peers. For non-English speakers, they learn their first words in the cafeteria. After their silent period—a month or so—their first words are, ‘Oh my God!’ ” While social interaction gets students’ minds and mouths going in the direction of English acquisition, they need sustained, focused academic work in English to master using the language academically. Schnabel values the synthesis of the social and academic uses of English. “It transfers into the classroom. By sitting in groups and reading together, they can work on projects with someone reading at a higher level. Within the classroom, they learn so much from each other.”

Importance of Heterogeneous Grouping

Schools like Manhattan International depend on heterogeneity, creating situations in which students learn from each other. Larissa Adam, a fifth grade bilingual Spanish-English teacher at ASCEND, a kindergarten through eighth grade school in its second year of operation in Oakland, California, also employs student diversity as a teaching tool. “In my class, we have kids who have arrived in the United States last month and kids who were born here but didn’t start to learn English until kindergarten. And they work together reading a text and discussing it among themselves. They come up with their own questions at their own levels and help each other to build meaning. At my previous school, we were mandated to split the students into homogenous groups strictly according to their English proficiency, and it didn’t work well. Those kids lost the opportunity to use each other as language models.”

But even as they rely on the pedagogical results of diversity teamed with student-centered curricula, teachers of language minority students struggle with the benefits of separating them in various ways—in bilingual or ESL settings—from the overall student population. Bronx International principal Shael Polakow-Suransky articulates this concern. “I believe deeply in heterogeneity, but I’m running a school that pulls out ESL kids. What I have learned is that these kids are so heterogeneous on their own—there’s no sense of anything missing. Rather, it’s a gift to give them space to develop who they are. These are kids who can do different things but share a common need. And there’s a particular commonality among them that helps us greatly—because they are newly arrived here, these are students who haven’t had to experience bad schooling in New York City for nine years. They’re less cynical and they really believe that learning and education will help them.”

At North Kansas City High School, where new immigrants sit side by side with native English speakers, ELL teacher Sara Boyd observes, “The majority of our students do well in English immersion with support. We have students who hardly skip a beat academically, even if they don’t speak much English. If you have a student coming in from Haiti, she might have basic English proficiency with highly advanced math and science skills. To keep her from learning [math and science] at her level with English-speaking students might hinder her adjustment and learning and progress toward college.”

Literacy Versus Language Acquisition

Language acquisition researchers agree that first-language literacy and proficiency hugely influences the rate and degree of second-language mastery. Stanford professor Kenji Hakuta writes, “The native language and the second language are complementary rather than mutually exclusive. Further, native language proficiency is a powerful predictor of the rapidity of second language development.” Hakuta also writes, in agreement with the overall body of recent research on language learning, “The attainment of age appropriate levels of performance in the second language can take four to seven years.” Students who, for a variety of reasons, are not fully literate in their first language may need more time to learn English. Therefore, schools with young ESL populations or older students with incomplete educations face acute challenges, particularly in accountability climates that demand that all students perform well in English on high-stakes tests.

William Ling, Manhattan International’s principal, describes the tension that this presents. “If a kid comes to us with good skills in her native language, she should be able to handle working in English in the academic content areas with the kind of support we give. But I worry that we haven’t served kids who have literacy issues as well. It’s hard to find people who teach literacy. And the number of kids who come from countries with economic, political, and social upheaval, with interrupted or no education is increasing. Young people from Yemen, West Africa, and some of the Caribbean nations are coming here with sketchy educations. Their math skills are outrageously bad. It’s a big concern for city of New York, and all while schools rushed to do better on tests, to produce better data or have our funds cut.”

Working with students who have had little experience with school, other educators reflect on the work they do as academic acculturators. North Kansas City High School’s Sara Boyd says, “Even in high school, most of the time with many of our students, we’re teaching how to do school. For a lot of our students, everything about being here is new and we teach them how to be successful in school, help them develop an academic vocabulary and learn what expectations are.” Sara Newman, principal of eleven-year old Brooklyn International High School, which serves three hundred ninth through twelfth graders from forty-four countries, agrees. “Our students are often age appropriate for high school but don’t have the educational background that you’d expect with a ninth grader. We make sure that they learn not only the language but also the stuff that they don’t know. We have had kids who didn’t know how to count—we had a student two years ago who couldn’t count to ten. Or kids are able to read basically but have not learned to write because they came from schools where rote memorization is all that counts. Kids tell stories of being in classes of sixty students. Obviously, they need to learn new ways of learning, so we focus on metacognitive matters. Kids need to learn more than social language—they have to acquire academic language. And we don’t have much time, just four years to get all of this done.”

Cultural Perspectives and Connections Between Home and School

In Paterson, New Jersey’s Charles J. Riley #9, an elementary school serving kinder -garten through eighth graders with high concentrations of Arabic, Spanish, and Turkish-speaking students, Skye Bayram teaches bilingual Turkish-English math, and ESL reading. She is from Paterson’s Turkish-speaking community and feels that her connection to her students’ cultural and linguistic backgrounds factors prominently in her students’ success. “I am a direct bridge to the families and children. Knowing the language, being familiar with culture, customs, and religion makes it so much easier for people.” Bayram also feels personal responsi -bility as a community role model. “The Turkish community is forty to fifty years old in this area, but there are not enough representatives in enough professions. We need more Turkish-speaking teachers, doctors, firefighters, and engineers. I remind the kids that once they achieve success, they need come back and help. They hear it from me, from their parents, and they’re experiencing it—I came back. I never forgot that there was a community that I could assist.”

Having teachers who share their linguistic and cultural heritages can also ease a common burden on children raised in non-English speaking homes: the need to act as a “broker” for their families, helping parents and other adults navigate the English-speaking world. Brooklyn International principal Sara Newman observes, “Kids aren’t adults, but they’re often asked by schools and the rest of the world to use what English they have to figure things out with their families, and it’s a lot of pressure to put on a kid. They do not have the background and vocabulary, but they’re dealing with illness, with finance. And sometimes, kids have emotional or other problems in school; we work hard to find translators on our staff or elsewhere so we don’t have to put any students in the position of talking about himself with his family and teachers.”

Schools are finding ways to take students out of the role of broker or translator in various ways. Oakland’s ASCEND hired two community representatives, Spanish and Mien speakers, to interact with the school population’s two main language groups. Bronx International offers ESL classes for parents as a way for the parent community to act as resources for each other and to help parents attain their own English proficiency. Sara Newman adds that it’s crucial to support literacy in students’ native languages as they progress toward English proficiency. “One teacher uses Romeo and Juliet every year, so when the staff travels or talks to families, we try to get copies of it—we now have it in thirty different languages. We’ve done the same with Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl. It’s important to provide support materials in literature in native languages so students can talk at home about what they’re learning and keep up their skills.” Similarly, Bronx International is planning, for its first graduating students’ portfolios in 2005, to require demonstration of native language competency.

Lisa Delpit writes,”When instruction is stripped of children’s cultural legacies, then they are forced to believe that the world and all the good things in it were created by others. This leaves students further alienated from the school and its instructional goals, and more likely to view themselves as inadequate.” All of the schools profiled in this issue of Horace devote significant time and resources to making students’ cultures integral to school life by teaching multiculturally,
celebrating students’ heritages by hosting potluck meals, art shows, dance performances, and poetry recitals, and by inviting families to participate in the life of the school, all with the message that they value who students are and where they are from.

Unanxious Expectation

Perhaps the concept of unanxious expectation is the most resonant link between the research literature on creating the best conditions for minority language students and the practices that support student learning in Essential schools. “The best methods,” for creating second-language academic success, writes University of Southern California language and reading expert Stephen D. Krashen, “are therefore those that supply ‘comprehensible input’ in low anxiety situations, containing messages that students really want to hear. These methods do not force early production in the second language, but allow students to produce when they are ‘ready,’ recognizing that improvement comes from supplying communicative and comprehensible input, and not from forcing and correcting production.”

As with all other important development and learning, each student enters into English in his or her own idiosyncratic ways. Bronx International’s Shael Polakow-Suransky underscores this, saying, “We’re building a school community where English is the primary language, but kids make the choice for themselves when to make the shift from their native language to English. Some kids do it immediately. Some need two or three months. And some need two years. The phenomenon of getting past your silent period and starting to take risks depends on your personality, your family, and the community of other students that surround you.” But it can’t be rushed. However inconvenient, students need time to transform themselves into multilingual learners.

Delpit, Lisa and Dowdy, Joanne Kilgour, eds. The Skin that We Speak (The New Press, 2002)

Hakuta, Kenji. “Bilingualism and Bilingual Education: A Research Perspective” www.ncela.gwu.edu/ncbepubs/focus/focus1.htm

Krashen, Stephen D. Second Language Acquisition and Second Language Learning (Prentice Hall International, 1998)

National Association for Bilingual Education, www.nabe.org/faq_detail.asp?ID=19

Tse, Lucy. “Why Don’t They Learn English? Separating Fact from Fallacy in the U.S. Language Debate” (Teachers College Press, 2001)

U.S. English Foundation, Inc, www.us-english.org/foundation/

United States Department of Education’s Office of English Language Acquisition, Language Enhancement and Academic Achievement for Limited English Proficient Students Limited English Proficient student data: www.ncela.gwu.edu/states/stateposter.pdf