Ángel Solorzano spoke so little English when he arrived at Kearny High he had to communicate with the school’s principal, Ana Diaz-Booz, through sign language.

That’s not unusual for Diaz-Booz. The students who enter her school run the gamut in language skills. She gets those with a basic grasp of English, and those like Solorzano, who don’t know a word.

What wasn’t typical is what happened next. Diaz-Booz placed him in a mainstream English class, where he thrived. Within a few months, he’d picked up basic English. The following year, he entered AP courses. Now, Solorzano is on his way to UC Santa Cruz on an academic scholarship.

Had he walked into a different high school, the outcome may have been different. He’d likely have been placed into a separate class for English-learners, an ESL class, as it’s called. There, he’d practice the language until teachers and counselors felt he was ready to take classes that count toward graduation.

These classes, where English-learners can be stuck for years, sometimes go by a more ominous name: ESL ghettos. It’s a pejorative, informal moniker. But it might help explain why more than 6,000 students in San Diego Unified have been in district schools for six or more years and still aren’t proficient in English.

English-learners have stuck to the bottom rung of academics in San Diego Unified. Last October, when the district released its data showing how many students are on track to meet revamped graduation requirements next year, a mere 9 percent of English-learners made the cut.

We Stand Up for You. Will You Stand Up for Us?

It’s not just the case in San Diego. School districts across the country are confounded by the question of how to help students learn English and academic content simultaneously.

Few schools have cracked the code. But Kearny may offer an important key to what’s been missing.

Kearny High is made up of four small schools, an example of the so-called schools-within-a-school model. When they head into ninth grade, students choose a school based on their interests: international business, engineering and design, digital media and design or science and technology. Students who know little or no English head into the School of International Business, which has more supports set up for them.

Test scores can’t show us everything. Especially since the state suspended its Academic Performance Index, a system that ranks schools based on test scores. But an average of the last three years from which data is available gives us a glimpse at how English-learners at Kearny’s School of International Business stack up to English-learners in other San Diego Unified high schools.

Average API Score for English Learners, 2011-2013

How it Happened

To tell that story, Cheryl Hibbeln has to go back about 15 years, before she was promoted to the Central Office to oversee high schools districtwide. Before she and Diaz-Booz became principals and led a major overhaul that changed the school entirely.

Hibbeln recalls one day she and Diaz-Booz were walking through campus when they stopped at the door of the ESL class. The room was filled to capacity. The walls were barren. There were no strong students in the class who could model language or academic skills. The least experienced teacher was leading students who were in most dire need of help.

“I’ll never forget. Ana turned to me in that moment and said, ‘If we ever become leaders of this school, this room will never exist,’” Hibbeln said.

The school had other problems, too. Academically, it was in such bad shape the state was threatening to take over.

“I think what stands out the most from that time is that there just didn’t seem to be an intensity or sense of urgency that you’d like to see on a high school campus,” Hibbeln said.

At the time, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation was offering money to high schools that wanted to break into smaller campuses. Kearny took advantage, and opened the 2004 school year with four separate academies. Hibbeln and Diaz-Booz were two of four founding principals who took over.

One of their first orders of business: Get rid of the classrooms that isolated students.

Some separate ESL classes remain – they serve a purpose for some beginning English-learners, Diaz-Booz said – but they’re limited, and are no longer shoved to the corner of the school and treated as an afterthought.

Teachers looked for ways to transition English-learners to mainstream classes as soon as possible. (Some students, like Solorzano, skip those ESL classes altogether). Mainstream teachers learned strategies on how to reach each student, being mindful of each one’s unique learning needs.

Principals tweaked and improved the system over time. They added after-school tutoring sessions and additional counselors to catch students before they fell through cracks. Students built relationships with teachers, and with their peers.

The schools-within-a-school model made some of that easier. Organizing a big high school into smaller pockets lets teachers develop deeper relationships with students and create a more personalized environment.

While many of the changes start to reveal how Kearney has improved as a whole, they don’t necessarily explain why it’s working for English-learners. That’s because, for Hibbeln and Diaz-Booz, it’s hard to separate the strategies leaders use to reach English-learners from the ones that they’ve found successful overall.

‘I didn’t think I could do it. And I can do it.’

Sit down with Hibbeln and Diaz-Booz, and a word cloud soon emerges: A school’s culture has to align with its structure, as well its instruction. Have high expectations for students and put supports in place that help them advance. Move with a sense of urgency.

But for leaders who have managed to find success where other schools haven’t, what stands out more are the words you don’t hear: “English-learners.”

It’s not that Hibbeln and Diaz-Booz don’t think about these students. It’s more like they don’t think about English-learners as a clearly defined group, something “other” until they pass a test.

Nor do Hibbeln or Diaz-Booz seem particularly good at articulating a vision for the school, though they both seem to be operating with a clear understanding of what it is.

“It’s really hard to define,” said Hibbeln. “It’s not just a small schools model, or any one strategy. It’s having a belief system, and having everyone in the school buy into that. It’s being very purposeful about everything that happens in school, and talking about how to turn those ideas into action. Somewhere in there, that’s where the magic happens.”

What Hibbeln and Diaz-Booz can tell you is what they believe. Things like: Every student will be prepared for college, regardless of whether they even want to go.

In their junior year, kids can enter a fast-track program, a kind of partnership Kearny has with Mesa College where students take college courses that count toward graduation. Diaz-Booz said almost every student at Kearny’s School of International Business takes advantage. She tells kids from the beginning that’s the expectation, and looks for opportunities to advance them into AP classes, even if they don’t think they’re ready.

“Oh, I have kids that fight me on this,” said Diaz-Booz. “They say, ‘Well I don’t want to.’ Yes you do. I want you to try it. And if you try it and you don’t like it, then we can have the conversation. And I’ve never had a kid try it and come back to me and say, ‘You know what? I don’t like it.’ They always say, ‘I didn’t think I could do it. And I can do it.’”

Making this happen is work from the moment a student walks in. For students who don’t know English, that begins with an interview. Diaz-Booz or a counselor interviews students, assessing language skills and how much education they’ve had.

Then comes an important piece, often overlooked by other high schools: Staff members hand-select classes and sections that work best for each student. The idea is not to group too many English-learners into the same class. With a good mix, strong, native-English students can model language and academic skills.

“You don’t just load classes into a computer, feed in kids’ names, then cross your fingers and hope that it spits out a schedule that works for students. That’s not how it works,” said Hibbeln.

There are a few typical ways English-learners get instruction in most schools. They can be tossed sink-or-swim into mainstream classes without support; they can be placed into separate ESL classes, where they mostly practice language with other students who aren’t fluent; or they can be added to mainstream classes, with extra supports. The last approach is called sheltered instruction, and it’s the one Kearny leaders have found most effective.

The big problem with separate ESL classes – apart from being a surprisingly ineffective way to actually learn English – is that students aren’t receiving credits that count for graduation (or the ones needed to get into college).

Students who remain in this environment build up academic deficits year after year. Yet, Hibbeln said, the norm for English-learners in most district high schools is still to spend most of the day in separate ESL classes, where they fall behind in credits.

With sheltered instruction, on the other hand, teachers design lessons to make college prep material accessible to students. Teachers know exactly who their English-learners are. Instruction includes a lot of visuals. Academic vocabulary is built into the day and teachers devise ways to keep students participating and talking. Passivity is not an option.

“Really, these are just good teaching strategies – not just for English-learners,” said Diaz-Booz.

Crucially, sheltered instruction at Kearny allows students to remain on track for graduation. In this way, the school is able to address the central problem of teaching English and content simultaneously.

As a principal, Hibbeln was very good at making sure the classes that school offer work for students – that courses are sequential, and build on students’ prior knowledge.

So good, in fact, that last year she left Kearny to Diaz-Booz and went up to the Central Office. Now, she faces a much more daunting challenge: helping all district high schools develop schedules that work for kids.

It’s not necessarily the breadth of the work that’s difficult to overcome. It’s tradition.

Getting high schools to switch from the old school ESL classes to a sheltered instruction model isn’t an easy task, especially because it takes a lot of thought to make sheltered instruction effective. But it certainly seems within reach. So why are so many schools stuck in the old way?

“It’s not because principals don’t want these things for kids. It’s because we’re so mired in tradition and history that we can’t think outside the box,” Hibbeln said.

“There’s no reflection about courses each kid needs to advance. We just as a system are not at that place. We’re going to get there. We’re just not there, yet.”

    This article relates to: Education, English-Learners, Must Reads

    Written by Mario Koran

    Mario is an investigative reporter focused on immigration, border and related criminal justice issues. Reach him directly at 619.325.0531, or by email: mario@vosd.org.

    John H Borja
    John H Borja subscriber

    The key to English Learners in high school is assessment. No, I don't mean the usual standardized junk that major publicists insist are "good" for schools.

    No. Just ordinary stuff. Assess the kids in their language. Assess their basic stuff. Can they read, write, do math well in their own language? Is this a pain? Yes. But, it's only a very brief pain for a teacher that can do the quick check. And, then, make "the call". The call, as it were, is to ballpark where that student would find immediate success. Immediate success is needed because the high school experience has a relatively short shelf life. Bilingual teachers know from experience that in the case of the student highlighted above, children who arrive at school from another country with strong academic skills in another language, learn the new language in relative short order. The huge problem is with "newcomers" who have limited academic skills. They need very specialized support and could need a lot more time to get to speed. For this last group, "mainstreaming" would be detrimental to their academic growth.

    Kris Larsen
    Kris Larsen

    Okay, it looks like it's time for me to wrap this up! Here's what I really want to say before I max out on my word limit again!

    I totally agree that we can do a much better job supporting our English Learners. We DO need to have high expectations for all students. We DO need to find ways to help students successfully complete the requirements for graduation. We DO need to recognize the needs of individual students and "hand-select" appropriate courses for students. We DO need more sheltered classes. We DO need a cohort of highly qualified teachers working in a school district with huge numbers of under-achieving students.

    Perhaps these conditions are what the current administration plans for addressing the needs of English Learners. I don't know, nor do my colleagues, as we have only been told what supports are being taken away. With respect, Ms. Diaz-Booz and Ms. Hibbeln were math and English teachers, respectively. I have no reason to think they were not exemplary teachers, but an English teacher is not an ESL teacher. Exemplary ESL teachers understand how students acquire language, and build learning experiences to prepare students for the rigors of academic work within a framework of language acquisition.

    Let's not do away with ESL classes. Let's put the very best teachers in ESL and sheltered classes. Let's purposefully place students in these classes and boost their chances of accelerating language development and credit acquisition. For crying out loud, let's give them foreign language credit for learning English. It is, after all, an additional language for most of the world's population! That's a win-win for students and for an administration that wants to improve the district's graduation rate.

    There is currently so much bitterness within the district regarding changing policies, lack of transparency, and the administration's apparent resistance to authentically engage stakeholders. I call for a huge, genuine and respectful discussion about how we can best help our English Learners achieve their dreams. Let's assume that we al DO care, and at the same time recognize that there is no one easy solution.

    My apologies for two very lengthy comments. This has been percolating inside me all week!

    Kris Larsen
    Kris Larsen

    I have read with interest the comments made by a few readers, and am sorry that there are not more postings regarding this important issue. Veronica, Francesca and Anna all make important points. I'd like to add a few more. My views are shaped from 25 years of teaching English learners, and academic work leading to a Master's degree in teaching ESL as well as an international TESL qualification.

    I am delighted that Angel fast-tracked through Kearny! It is truly awe-inspiring when a student learns English and subject content concurrently, meeting the credit demands of a high school diploma. I am blessed to have worked with such students, as an ESL teacher of beginners. I shiver with pleasure as I watch them steadily progress through mainstream classes, earning a diploma and scholarship to college. It doesn't get much better than that!

    These students, however, are exceptional. In most instances they have had an excellent education before coming to this country; English may be their 4th or 5th language; their parents are educated and/or have very high expectations for their children. Most students in SDUSD's New Arrival Centers struggle with issues related to re-location, linguistically, culturally, educationally, and emotionally. The NAC classes are safe harbors for these young people, and provide language-rich learning environments for beginners during their first months of school. For some of them, this is their first school experience. Former NAC students commonly return to their first teachers simply to "check in" after they are promoted out of the class.

    Are these the classes that the 2 Kearny Principals promised would not survive under their leadership? I hope not. These students move on the higher level ESL classes and eventually into regular English classes. In my experience, most students are not "stuck for years" in ESL classes.

    francesca subscriber

    A related article, worth reading, about Kearny School of International Business, when Ana Booz was first principal there.

    Search: "Test Scores Soar Here, But The Grades Aren't So Easy" by Emily Alpert from 2-6-2011.

    Emily writes about the discrepancy between the extraordinarily high state test scores and the mediocre grades the same students got on their report card in their course work from their teachers.

    Emily says it's far more likely to be the other way around, high grades, low scores and does a thorough analysis, using charts and data, to try to explain this phenomena.

    Emily concludes that the teachers there, just have higher standards, but if the state scores are accurate, those teachers would be doing a disservice to these incredibly high scoring children.

    Does raise questions as to the validity of the state scores.

    Mario Koran
    Mario Koran author

    @francesca I'm not sure how that story puts the test scores in question at all. To me it shows that teachers at Kearny SIB have higher expectations for students, and are less likely to engage in grade inflation. 

    francesca subscriber

    @Mario Koran

    Higher expectations...but why the high scores and low GPA's.

    Could be as simple as children who are good in Math, not much language involved and still struggling in English.  High standards test scores, low History, English, class grades, language impacted classes.

    Also a very small number of children in Booz's school, I think, compared to other high schools...300?

    Now that Booz has been promoted to Kearny High School principal, will be interesting to watch.

    DistrictDeeds wordpress com
    DistrictDeeds wordpress com subscriber

    @francesca @Anna Bonitati Thank you Anna and francesca for pointing out the obvious regarding EL instruction in the SDUSD.  I am not surprised that @Mario Koran was able to elicit a happy EL propaganda story from the same District that has miserably failed to follow through with supports for EL students after ripping the key ELST components from the neediest schools in the District and replaced them with promises for a "new" plan and nothing else.  

    I have written a number of posts on my blog regarding the Marten ELST disaster including one from a Concerned ELL Teacher Whistleblower and an Open Letter to the District from an  ELL Parent in "Utter Disbelief"

    I know and respect Cheryl Hibbeln but to claim Kearney "cracked the code" is a bit much.  If it was such a miracle, Hibbeln was in the district office for the last couple years...why didn't Marten let her work her magic at the same type of 4 in 1 San Diego High School instead of standing back and watching it struggle for 2 years...and then jam reorganization down the throat of the school site stakeholders with less than 3 weeks notice and no site wide collaboration?

    Downtown politics and influence and not the right "type" of ELL's perhaps?

    Although we are all extremely happy for ANY student that gains scholastic success and earns a college scholarship and education, we cannot fall for this "silver bullet" fakery by the SDUSD again.    Don't drink the Marten "Kool Aid" of "word clouds" and eduspeak that is high on promises and historically extremely low on actual metrics and transparency that actually PROVE delivery. 

    With ANYTHING coming from the SDUSD we must make them PROVE it before we BELEIVE it...and unfortunately this is not proof.

    francesca subscriber

    Good for Angel Solarzano.  Sounds like a smart student who learns easily.

    Years ago, I taught a child who came from the Phillipines.  He was determined, by his score on an entry test,  to be very limited in English.  When testing time came, the office did not provide a test for him.  His parents insisted he be tested.  When he took the test, given to him alone, by the vice-principal, he got every answer correct.

    When my son attended a Seminar for the Highly Gifted, the children had to score in the top 99.9 percent on the Stanford Binet IQ Test to qualify.

    A girl came into his class directly from Mexico.  She had never attended school, but when referred by her third grade teacher, she qualified for Seminar on the IQ test.

    Nice anecdotal narratives, both true, but not sure what they prove.

    Cheryl Hibbeln and Ana Diaz-Booz ...I've seen them characterized as the new experts by Marten and the school board, but looking at that chart, where Kearney had such unbelievably high scores from 2011 to 2013, so high, that in the past they would have brought state investigators to see how that can happen, higher second language scores than La Jolla or Point Loma.

    Using  Sheltered techniques, more visuals instead of ESL instruction, that began around 1985, nothing new, with mixed results. I see Hibbeln got her credential in 1999, and seems to think she invented sheltered.  Very confident lady, but not much substance to her ideas.

    Makes me wonder if Hibbeln is covering up Cindy Martens monumental blunder, this past year, removing the English Language Support Teachers, but Cheryl attempting to prove these ELST are not necessary.  They are!

    Mario Koran
    Mario Koran author

    Thanks, @francesca. For what it's worth, I didn't hear Hibbeln chalk all the success up to sheltered instruction. I did hear a lot of talk about trying to align different elements in school, based on what works for kids in the classroom. On the part about test scores, I think you're suggesting there was some cheating going on, which is a pretty serious accusation, even if it came from a friend of a friend. 

    francesca subscriber

    @Mario Koran

    "The last approach is called sheltered instruction and it's the one Kearney leaders have found most effective."...quote from your article.

    Since Cheryl Hibbeln has been a principal at Kearney for the past ten years, I thought she was included in your above reference to "Kearney leaders."  Didn't mean to falsely accuse her of supporting sheltered instruction.

    What works...I keep hearing Cindy Marten say that she and Staci Monreal are going from school to school to find what works, but after two years, I haven't heard what works.

     And now, Cheryl is "aligning different elements, based on what works?"  No recent test scores, just these stories of a child who did well...I'd like some specifics on what works...how about good curriculum, with supporting materials..Yes, that works.

    Cheating?  I have no direct observation of that, only things teachers from there have said.

    I would like someone to look more closely at those scores and analyze them.

    Could be Kearney's high achievers, among limited English speakers, are the children of scholars brought here to teach at UCSD...Preuss played that game.

    But I've heard, from more than one source, that the highest achieving of the small schools there, had conditions during their testing, that resulted in inaccurately inflating the scores.  I believe that school had Ana Booz-Diaz, as their principal.

    Call it divine inspiration, call it cheating, it needs to be looked at more carefully. 


    Mario Koran
    Mario Koran author

    I think you misunderstood me, @francesca. I didn't mean that Hibbeln didn't chalk any of the success up to sheltered instruction, I meant she didn't chalk it *all* up to any single strategy or component. I quoted her saying so. 

    I agree with you that test scores should be vetted, double and triple checked -- including at schools where test score averages have historically been high, like La Jolla and Scripps Ranch. 

    But I'm confused as you what you find so unbelievable about these scores. On a three year average, English learners at Kearny's International School of Business had an API score of 833. That's much higher than English learners at other schools, but it's only slightly higher than the district average for all students in 2013, which was an 809. 

    The fact that it's so hard to believe that English learners at one high school can score slightly above average -- to the point where cheating, grade inflation, or having professors for parents all seem like more logical explanations -- well I wonder if this is part of the problem in our schools. It doesn't say a lot for what we think English learners (or their teachers) are capable of achieving. 

    And it doesn't necessarily surprise me that English learners at Kearny would have a higher API score than English learners at La Jolla. Just because the majority of students at any given school are scoring above average, that doesn't necessarily mean its principal or teachers know how to effectively reach all students.

    francesca subscriber

    @Mario Koran

    It is very hard to tell "what works", Mario.

    But what I find "so unbelievable" about the English Learners' scores at Kearney, is they are 150 to 200 points higher than the average English Learners's scores.

    I understand that the International Business scores may be because it's an elite program, like gifted or International Baccalaureate at SDHS, but if this is true, it should be included in the explanation of these high scores.

    It "doesn't say a lot for what we think of English learners?"...you say? 

    What I think of English learners is that they are learning English, but if their scores are 200 points higher than average English learner, there's more to the story than a principal and her amazing teachers.

    If Kearney was able to pick and choose students, it should be included in the article, but if indeed Ana Diaz-Booz and Cherly Hibbeln had some amazing techniques, that if used by all, could make children who are learning English, able to score as high as they did, on this very difficult test, Booz and Hibbeln need to be more specific about what they did, more specific than.."overcoming tradition and thinking outside the box."

    Anna Bonitati
    Anna Bonitati

    @francesca @Mario Koran Francesca I agree with you. Having worked at SDHS, I know first hand that the average EL student in the School of International Studies is not the district's average EL. Most of the EL's at that school come from a Europe or a higher socio-economic class. They enter school with previous English instruction, usually from early elementary school. The student who are like the vast majority of English Learners do not make it through the 4 years of high school. They either switch schools within the complex, transfer to Charter school or move else where.

    Mario Koran
    Mario Koran author

    @francesca Just to clarify, Kearny's International School of Business isn't an elite program. The school at San Diego High that you're referring to, the School of International Studies, is an International Baccalaureate program. Kearny does not offer this. 

    Here's a student story I did not include, that of Aracely Zeferino. Zeferino was a long term English learner before she got to Kearny. She'd been in SD schools since kindergarten, but never passed out of remedial or English development classes. Now, after four years at Kearny, she's on her way to SD State on a full ride scholarship. I didn't include that story because, as you say, anecdotes don't prove a larger trend.


    francesca subscriber

    @Mario Koran 

    Thanks for the clarification, Mario.  So the International School of Business is not a program, where students are filtered by ability.  Very interesting..

    I'd love to read an interview with Ana Diaz Booz, where she explains concretely,  the techniques and instructional approach that resulted in such incredibly high scores.

    Such an inspiring story about the child who spent years in the English Learner program.  Sounds like the EL program worked well for her.

    I spent over twenty years teaching English Learners, at first in traditional classrooms and the last dozen in an elementary Sheltered Program.

    I began each year saying to the children, " there are children in my class who know more than the teacher".  Then I would add, they know how to speak two languages and I only know one.  The other children would seem impressed and those who knew just enough English to understand what I said, would smile.

    Then I racked my brain, to come up with techniques, to help them acquire English, and amazingly most did well and they attempted to help me overcome my deficit, with less success.

    NorthParkian subscriber

    This speaks to the great things a skilled principal can do.  It also speaks to the ability of schools and teachers to transform themselves. Is there a reason that sheltered instruction wouldn't be available for all English learners?  Does it cost more money in teaching assistants or counselors? Is there a point at which the students are no longer considered English learners for statistical purposes? I know our elementary school has a ceremony declaring students to be no longer English learners. The timing of that would affect test scores, I would think.

    The article describes the ESL teacher as "the least experienced teacher."  Is this emblematic of ESL teaching?  If not, I'm not sure this anecdote explains the results. The description of the different teaching methods just sounds like good teaching, separate classrooms or not. If you had a great, experienced, well-trained ESL teacher would the results be so dramatic?

    I've always thought it striking that elementary language immersion programs are in demand, but schools with a majority of English learners are looked down on.

    Anna Bonitati
    Anna Bonitati


    In my experience, many times, but not always, an English teacher is assigned to  teach ESL because the leadership feels that that is where they will do the least amount of harm. This year there was NO professional development in SDUSD geared specifically for the ESL teachers. They were left to fend for themselves. Actions speaker louder than words.

    Bill Bradshaw
    Bill Bradshaw subscribermember

    Agreed, a very inspiring story, but I have a question and forgive this octogenarian with no kids or grandkids in California schools his stupidity. 

    Over a decade ago, Ron Unz, a silicon valley entrepreneur, sponsored an initiative that was fought tooth and nail by the school system and teachers unions.  Nevertheless, the voters approved it.  I seem to recall it was supposed to eliminate ESL classes and force mainstreaming all students.  There are obviously still lots of ESL classes in the district.  How did they get around the law?

    Sarah Fox
    Sarah Fox

    @Bill Bradshaw Your question requires a detailed response! If you would like to email me your phone number, I would be happy to call you one evening this week. Maybe @Mario Koran has a way for us to "private message" each other?

    Sarah Fox
    Sarah Fox

    Thank you for showcasing this success story. In my career I have seen similar ones throughout San Diego county. Along with the school site leadership aspect, which is critically important, one point was not made. Ángel's first language was likely well developed through a strong academic background before arriving at Kearny. That is called "de facto" bilingual education and demonstrates how quickly a new language can be built, under the right circumstances, when the student has a lot of prior knowledge to transfer to the new language. I saw something similar happen in La Mesa many years ago with a 7th grade boy who moved there from Mexico City. His Spanish was very polished and literate, and he had a strong academic background. He was a happy, confident learner. At the middle school, he was in a sheltered environment part of the day for one year—what the California Department of Education calls SDAIE (specially designed academic instruction in English), and after one year he was re-designated as fluent English proficient. Although the teachers he had in 7th grade were exceptional and their expectations for him were high, he might have succeeded almost anywhere because of his well developed literacy in Spanish. 

    What we are challenged to do in our schools is design programs and systems that accelerate learning for students who, unlike Ángel: 1) have been in US schools for 6 or more years and are plateauing academically at an intermediate level--now identified formally by the State as long-term English learners; 2) are learning English as a new language but without a strong academic background in their first or "home" language; 3) come to our schools as refugees so are suffering trauma and culture shock; and also did not fully develop literacy in their first language; and/or 4) are already English dominant although another language is spoken in the home, but their home’s version of English is not the same as the academic language of school. The fourth category may also relate to students who are not identified as English learners at all, and so do not receive the kinds of linguistic supports that could help them succeed.

    There is no "one size fits all" program to meet the needs of English learners in our schools. They come to us in a variety of circumstances with a variety of needs. Educators and policy makers alike must learn about these students in order to personalize instructional opportunities that work for them. Key areas for policy makers to consider are ways to alleviate the effects of poverty and ways to increase access to books and libraries! Perhaps the most effective option is to carefully design and implement dual language immersion programs so that our English learners develop literacy in their home language while helping their native English speaking peers develop literacy in a new language, too! But, that’s another story…

    This quote from your article shows that the school leadership at Kearny understands what's important:

    A school’s culture has to align with its structure, as well its instruction. Have high expectations for students and put supports in place that help them advance. Move with a sense of urgency.

    I agree that isolating students in English language development or ELD classes (by the way, we haven't used the term ESL in the public schools since the late 1990s although educators at the college level still do) is not the most effective way to help them. However, not everyone will succeed the way Ángel did unless their teachers are expert at scaffolding instruction, structuring interaction, guiding oral practice of complex, academic language, and creating a classroom environment that is culturally sensitive, thereby motivating students to collaborate and support each other's learning. Dr. Aída Walqui at WestEd has been telling us for decades that we must have high expectations for our students—expectations that are supported by specially designed instruction.

    I would add that we must know and respect each student to be able to help him/her develop and grow. English learners are not a monolithic group. They are a richly diverse with different needs. One of our premiere researchers in this area of English learner typology is Laurie Olsen, PhD. Interested parties will learn the relevant facts by downloading her report on the reparable harm being done to long-term English learners:  file:///Users/sfox/Downloads/ReparableHarm2ndedition.pdf

    As a board member of the California Association for Bilingual Education, I am pleased to report there are actually thousands of educators throughout our state who do know what to do—and whose districts support effective programs. San Diego Unified is one of these with strong and knowledgeable leadership in their Office of Language Acquisition. I look forward to reading more success stories! 

    John Horst
    John Horst

    Terrific story.  My favorite part is this:

    “It’s really hard to define,” said Hibbeln. “It’s not just a small schools model, or any one strategy. It’s having a belief system, and having everyone in the school buy into that. It’s being very purposeful about everything that happens in school, and talking about how to turn those ideas into action. Somewhere in there, that’s where the magic happens.”

    Actually, there's nothing magic about any of this.  This is real leadership.  Having a belief system and drawing people to buy into it and then be purposeful and urgent about it.

    It really is easy to define.  One word.  Leadership.  And it is refreshing.