San Diego Unified Forced to Backtrack on English-Learner Approach - Voice of San Diego

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San Diego Unified Forced to Backtrack on English-Learner Approach

After a recent state report pointed out critical flaws in San Diego Unified School District’s English-learner program, the district is now trying to prove it can meet state legal requirements for some of its most vulnerable students. 

State officials found serious flaws in how the district educates English-learners at Hoover High and other San Diego Unified schools. / Photo by Dustin Michelson

After a recent state report pointed out critical flaws in San Diego Unified School District’s English-learner program, the district is now trying to prove it can meet state legal requirements for some of its most vulnerable students.

The report found that in six out of eight schools sampled, English-learners were not receiving legally mandated out-of-class language support, known as designated instruction, to help them keep up with their English-fluent peers. As part of making assurances to the state, the district recently sent out communications to principals and teachers: “All English Learners must receive Designated [instruction] until they are reclassified,” it read, according to an email obtained by Voice of San Diego.

But principals may find the resources to implement the new mandate are not readily available. In 2014, the district cut funding for its English-learner support teachers, who were previously assigned to each of the district’s 100-plus schools. Those specialists were available to teach designated English instruction, among many other duties.

As part of those 2014 changes, schools also began to emphasize in-class, or integrated, English language instruction – instead of designated instruction. But the state report now demonstrates those changes did not comply with the state’s minimum legal standards for English-learners, which require a student to receive both designated and integrated English instruction.

Integrated English instruction focuses on teaching the same academic concepts other students are learning, but in a way that meets English-learners at their language capabilities. Designated instruction focuses more on grammar and language, giving English-learners the new vocabulary and skills they need to succeed academically.

“San Diego Unified needs to get its act together and do training in [English learner] standards,” said Jill Kerper Mora, a professor emeritus at San Diego State University, who has advised districts on best practices for implementing the state’s English-learner standards.

“The [regular classroom] teachers didn’t and couldn’t pick up the slack [after English learner specialists lost their jobs in 2014,]” she said. “I think they need to bring those coordinators back into the fold and make money available for professional development, otherwise it isn’t going to happen.”

The district’s spokeswoman Maureen Magee characterized the email as a “reminder to principals of their obligation,” and acknowledged it was sent out as a result of the state report.

“There is no new policy,” she wrote in an email. In a separate email, Magee wrote, “The district has long required designated EL instruction for students who have not yet been reclassified.” But whatever the district’s requirements were on paper, designated instruction clearly has not been happening for many students, according to the state’s findings.

Magee declined to make officials with the Office of Language Acquisition, who oversee English-learner education, available for an interview.

State auditors found San Diego Unified was out of compliance in nine areas of its English-learner program, which ranged from funding and professional development to core instruction. District officials are now in the process of showing the state that they can meet those standards going forward.

District officials have argued that, regardless of the state’s compliance findings, English-learners’ performance has actually improved in recent years. The available data on that claim is mixed.

In the 2017-18 school year, English-learners’ graduation rate dropped by a point, from 71.4 percent to 70.4 percent. That is two points less than the statewide graduation rate for English-learners (an apples-to-apples comparison excludes charter schools from both the state and district rates) and far below the districtwide graduation rate of 86.9 percent.

The district has also pointed to its significantly increased “reclassification” rate. (A student is reclassified out of English learner status, once that have met several benchmarks that show they have achieved proficiency in English.) Reclassification is generally acknowledged as a positive step in a student’s development, but the state report indicated that San Diego Unified may be reclassifying some English-learners before they are ready.

“If the district is having clear success and there is research to back it up and the state is saying we need to do something different then we need to have a conversation between the district and [state,]” board trustee Richard Barrera told me last month. Barrera said he’ll be looking for that clear data and research in the coming weeks as district officials work to come into compliance with state standards.

So far, such clear and compelling data has not been relayed to the public or community members who serve on the District English Learner Advisory Committee. The vast majority of the district’s work to resolve the state’s findings is happening behind closed doors.

At a recent advisory committee meeting, several committee members asked district officials to address the state’s findings. They declined, saying only that they were working to resolve the findings and would be able to present a full report in the fall.

“When you look at the state’s report, nothing is working,” Lallia Allali, who is a district parent and the committee’s chair, told me. “The [designated instruction] is not taking place. The kids are being reclassified early and the money is misspent.” Allali said she thinks the community should be involved in revamping what appears to be a broken program. Instead she hears one refrain: “The only thing that was told to us was to wait until the fall.”

Correction: An earlier version of this post misstated the difference between San Diego Unified’s English-learner graduation rate and the state’s English-learner graduation rate. The district’s rate is two points lower than the state’s.

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