Next superintendent must have plan to help English Language Learners

On Monday, the Clark County School Board will decide whether to undertake a national search for the superintendent position left vacant by Dwight Jones. Choosing the district’s superintendent is one of the trustees’ most important tasks.

A national search would best serve the school district’s needs. Casting a wide net that seeks out the best possible candidate is what the school district needs now.

The challenge of the coming five years is to close the achievement gap of English Language Learners, or ELL students. According to the 2011 Nevada Report Card, 70 percent of ELL students in K-8 are not reading at grade level. According to the U.S. Department of Education, 70 percent of ELL students do not graduate from high school. Only one in 12 pass high school proficiency exams in reading, school district data show. This is not just an achievement gap crisis, it is also an illiteracy crisis.

This abysmal performance should alarm every Southern Nevadan, because ELL students are a large segment of the school district’s population — 54,000 students, according to most recent data, a jump of 13 percent from last year.

One in six students is an ELL learner; in K-3, it’s one in four students. Half of elementary schools are high-ELL schools, where 40 percent or more of the children in the classrooms are ELL pupils.

The next superintendent must turn around ELL academic performance for Southern Nevada to have a bright economic future. Nevada’s return on investing $1 on ELL education is between $1.15 and $2, a 2012 report by Applied Analysis shows.

ELL children are not foreigners — 85 percent are born in Nevada. Their home language is one other than English, because their parents are recent immigrants. These children will not move away; the vast majority of Nevada’s immigrant population stayed and weathered the economic downturn. ELL children do not refuse to speak English; four in five ELL children speak some English when they come to school, just not at the readiness level for progressing in academics.

In ELL classrooms, teachers must use methods that help ELL children develop English skills (how to speak English at an academic level) as they learn academic substantive content (e.g., what happened during the U.S. Revolutionary War). These children do double the work and need help from their teachers that is tailored to their needs.

However, most Clark County School District teachers are not equipped to provide high-quality instruction. In the first quarter of 2012, WestEd, a national education think tank, reviewed the in-classroom performance of 60 district teachers in 10 elementary, middle and high schools. These observers found that only one teacher incorporated high-quality English language development interactions with ELL children.

The school district might argue that these results reflect underfunding of education and ELL programs. Gov. Brian Sandoval deserves credit for earmarking $25 million per year for ELL education. These additional monies still leave the school district about $100 million short for ELL programs, according to the state’s own adequacy studies.

However, money alone is not the solution. The next superintendent must choose, prioritize and implement policies that will best educate ELL children and children struggling with literacy. When there is quality instruction in a high-ELL classroom, all other children who are not well-prepared also receive quality instruction.

The school district needs a superintendent who understands how to reach children who must do double the work.

First, Trustees should seek out a candidates who can communicate a crisis outlook in fixing the ELL achievement gap and illiteracy crisis. Mr. Jones was a great leader, but in his two years in Clark County there was no direct action taken to solve the ELL and illiteracy crisis. The next superintendent must move beyond words, or naming one or two additional administrators whose job titles include “ELL.”

The next superintendent should be able to articulate a specific plan of action and explain how he or she will implement the proposal.

Second, the next superintendent must be able to “face the music” and accept the task of providing additional training to close to 20,000 teachers and principals so high-quality instruction in high-ELL classrooms becomes the norm. He or she must be able to make changes in the organizational structure for greater accountability, and change the district’s culture so all teachers and principals have high expectations of every child who is ELL and from a low-socioeconomic background.

Too many children are reaching middle school reading at a first-, second- or third-grade level. With a national search, the trustees can cast a wide net to find the right leader. If local talent fits the bill, then let them show they can do the job, and let’s ask for specifics about how they will close the achievement gaps.

Let us all also pledge that we will all support whomever is chosen to be the next superintendent, because only then will Southern Nevada prosper as a community.

Sylvia Lazos is a professor of civil rights and education reform at UNLV’s William S. Boyd School of Law and a member of the Clark County School District English Language Learner Review Committee.