ELL challenges can be met through coordination, debate, cooperation

Review-Journal columnist Glenn Cook’s recent series on the English Language Learner crisis has drawn attention to the education challenge that Nevada faces. As Cook notes, the key to improved outcomes is to focus on the key demographics that are in crisis — ELL children and children from impoverished backgrounds.

The data show that ELL performance has actually declined in the last year. The Nevada graduation rate has dipped to 23 percent for ELL children. The Clark County School District’s English standardized test scores for third-graders have dropped, with only about one in five reading at satisfactory or proficiency levels.

Nevada Senate Bill 504, passed by the Legislature and approved by Gov. Brian Sandoval last month, begins to outline the solution by taking three important steps. First, it provides funding for 12 high-ELL, low-performing schools in Clark County. These “Zoom Schools” will now have the economic support to work at a small scale on the system-wide solutions that need to be put in place so that ELL children will have the support to achieve and succeed.

Second, SB504 sets up a committee of experts, known as the English Mastery Council, that will examine the state’s ELL policies and focus on how the state trains and supports teachers, so that they can provide high-quality instruction for ELL students.

Third, SB504 requires transparency reporting on the ELL achievement gap.

Zoom schools will receive great attention. For this group, dismal performance will no longer be attributable to funding. There will be close to $1 million per school to fund pre-K and full-day kindergarten, provide literacy support with Reading Skills Development Centers (RSDCs), and extend instructional time by converting to 12 months or providing summer-school programs. Such a targeted approach has netted dividends elsewhere.

However, money is never enough. To change a school from struggling to quality requires an integrated approach that addresses teacher instruction quality, principal leadership and parental engagement.

First, quality teachers are essential. Both conservative- and liberal-sponsored research shows that high-quality teachers make the biggest difference in student outcomes. RSDCs, in addition to tutoring struggling readers, also will provide professional development on site. RSDC schools that have embraced individual tailored strategies based on ongoing assessments have seen gains across the board, not just among students who are receiving RSDC tutoring services.

Second, school leadership should foment a new culture of high expectations and high performance. There must be urgency that ELL students develop English language skills quickly. Instructional performance must support linguistic development lesson plans in every class, every day. Speaking a language other than English is not a deficit, but an asset that teachers can build upon so that ELL students can fulfill their potential.

Third, parents will need to understand this change. In high-poverty, high-ELL schools, many students are chronically absent and have a home life that is troubled. Currently, CCSD invests very few resources in supporting parental engagement. SB504 investments in extended instructional time will be for naught if parents don’t understand how important it is that children attend the extended summer sessions. CCSD administrators and principals will have to reinvent parental engagement.

On Thursday and on Aug. 8, Superintendent Pat Skorkowsky will reveal CCSD’s “Zoom School” plan. We should be attentive as to how CCSD intends to bring about systemic change to support the SB504 investments. But we should be realistic. Change will take time, certainly more than two years. For the short term, the School Board must become involved in monitoring and supporting the “Zoom School” plan and ensure that proposed systemic changes go far enough.

To succeed, the entire community of Southern Nevada also must take ownership of educational transformation. That means becoming aware of the “Zoom School” experiment and its progress, and engaging trustees and administrators in important reform debates.

Furthermore, it also perhaps means volunteering our individual talents to help turn around not only “Zoom Schools,” but all struggling schools in which so many innocent children are trapped.

Sylvia R. Lazos is the Justice Myron Leavitt professor, William S. Boyd School of Law, University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and co-founder of the Reading Skills Development Centers Consortium, a partnership between UNLV and the Clark County School District.

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