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The District's Ambitious New Plan to Serve English-Learners

San Diego Unified, like many districts, has struggled to boost the achievement of students learning English. In 2014, Superintendent Cindy Marten cut many English-learner support teacher positions to balance the budget. Now the district is creating a plan it hopes will lead to 90 percent of English-learners graduating on time.

The Learning Curve is a weekly, jargon-free column that answers questions about education. Have a question about how your local schools work? Write me at


I opened a story last year by zooming in on Ángel Solorzano, a student at Kearny High.

Solorzano arrived at Kearny speaking very little English. When he met his new principal, Ana Diaz-Booz, the two communicated in sign language. He was one of 32,000 English-learners in San Diego Unified schools who aren’t proficient in English.

Diaz-Booz had an option. She could keep Solorzano in separate classes, where he’d build his language skills until he was ready to enter mainstream classes and take college-prep classes. Some parents and civil rights advocates have called these classes ESL ghettos.

Learning Curve 2016-01 (2)At most high schools, this would have been Solorzano’s trajectory. Instead, Diaz-Booz zigged: She placed Solorzano in mainstream, college-going classes, but made sure teachers were ready to support him with language needs.

It made all the difference. Solorzano progressed rapidly through high school, jumping into AP classes the year after he arrived. After he graduated, he set off for UC Santa Cruz on an academic scholarship.

At Kearny, Diaz-Booz had managed to strike the most important balancing act when it comes to teaching English-learners: Students learn English while also making progress in core-content subjects, like math and science.

Stories like Solarzano’s are inspiring, but they’re also outliers. San Diego Unified data from the past few years bears out alarming numbers:

In 2014, 48 percent of all seniors graduated with the college-prep classes they needed to get into UC/CSU schools. The same year, only 12 percent of English-learners did the same.

• This year, 75 percent of seniors are on track to graduate in May. Only 28 percent of English-learners can say the same.

• As of October, 4,884 students were considered long-term English-learners, meaning they have been in San Diego Unified schools for six or more years and still aren’t proficient in English. This is actually an improvement from the past two years.

The underwhelming achievement of the district’s English-learners is not a new problem. San Diego Unified – and many others – has been stuck on it for years, with marginal progress.

READ MORE: The ABCs of English-Learning Students

What is new is district staff members’ energy to change it so radically, so quickly.

Earlier this week, at Lincoln High, folks from the district’s Office of Language Acquisition kicked off a series of workshops that will last through October. By then, district staffers expect to have a laid out a master plan that shows how each school across the district will serve English-learners.

It’s an ambitious goal, but not as ambitious as the overall objective: Within four years, the district plans to graduate 90 percent of its English-learners on time.

During most of Superintendent Cindy Marten’s tenure, the OLA – the department that’s primarily responsible for supporting English-learners – has been in flux.

Amid shifting leadership, OLA has also been crafting a new plan, one that shifts the burden of supporting English learners from the school to the central office. (Sort of. Stay with me).

In 2014, Marten shook up the way English-learners were served. Trying to balance the district’s budget, Marten made the last-minute decision to cut a position at each school. In the end, most schools elected to cut English learner support teachers, or ELSTs, whose primary jobs was to support English-learners.

Typically, ELSTs were assigned to one school. They worked with mainstream teachers, helping them shape lessons so they were more accessible to English-learners. ELSTs administered the yearly tests English-learners are required to take, which assesses English skills and academic progress.

It was also common for ELSTs to serve as a liaison between the school and parents, who speak other languages at home.

But after 2014, when the district halved the number of ELSTs, schools each had to establish their own point-person to take on these tasks. Staffers from the OLA helped schools with the transition, administering the yearly tests, for instance.

But a big question remains: What is the plan current plan for serving English learners? (This is my own question.)

In short, while there are fewer of them, ELSTs still exist. And they’re going to play a big role in the plan. But their look has changed.

Instead of being assigned to one or two schools, ELSTs are going to work as a team, by cluster. (Clusters are groups of elementary and middle schools, and the high school they feed into.)

Terri Callaway, for example, has been an ELST for about eight years. Under the old model, Callaway worked at one school, with about 350 English-learners. Now, she said she supports six schools and about 1,100 English-learners.

Callaway also works with teachers throughout the cluster, helping to plan lessons that are accessible to English-learners. This is a duty ELSTs will embrace districtwide.

Making a lesson “accessible” to English-learners might mean teachers use more visual aids, or provide lots of opportunities for students to converse in class, or it might mean pairing struggling English-learners with strong native speakers.

Marten’s goal is to have every teacher, throughout the district, trained in these methods. When everything is in place, there will be no more long term English-learners. Young students will be “reclassified,” or considered fluent, by the time they get to middle school.

That’s the hope. It’s a work in progress. At this stage, the OLA is making sure its teams are in place and kids are being tested on time.

Some parents have expressed concern that the district has been too focused on administrative duties – like administering tests – and not enough on making sure kids have the in-class support they need.

“Are we looking at just being compliant, or are we looking at really supporting them?” said Gabriela Contreras-Misirlioglu, a parent of an English-learning student.

Still Contreras-Misirlioglu is encouraged by the district’s renewed energy and focus. She’ll work alongside other parents, helping the district to create the long-term master plan it wants to finalize by October.

If any of this seems jargon-thick and confusing, remember: Until 2014, ELSTs bore the weight of making sure English-learners were progressing.

Now, the responsibility for serving English learners is shared by ELSTs, principals and teachers.

How to best serve English-learners is a complex and layered topic. I’ll peel it over time, examining what schools are doing and searching for best practices established by research.


The Learning Curve is officially one year old. I started this column last year with the hope of demystifying the things that go on in school district and inside classrooms.

It’s been a great learning experience for me as a reporter. By tracking down answers to questions you send in, I’ve come to understand more about the systems within which schools operate.

I’ve taken a mostly random approach, jumping to a new topic each week. In the coming months, I’m going to try something new.

I’m still going to answer questions you send in, so keep emailing me at

But, every other week, we’re going to focus on schools and topics most relevant to low-income neighborhoods. That might mean looking at teacher-turnover rates in southeastern San Diego schools, or, say, which schools City Heights parents are opting into most.

I’m going to have some help, too.

Rachel Evans has joined Voice of San Diego as a reporting fellow. Rachel grew up in San Diego and graduated from Lincoln High. Most recently, she worked with a local nonprofit, distributing low-cost computers to underserved communities.

With Rachel aboard, I look forward to writing richer and deeper stories about what’s happening in San Diego schools. Contact Rachel with tips or questions, or just to offer a hearty VOSD welcome at

Correction: An earlier version of this post misspelled Terri Callaway’s name.

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