Assistant Superintendent Emilio Handall

Paul Wellman (file)

Assistant Superintendent Emilio Handall

School District Dealing with English-Learner Limbo

Advisory Committee Suggests New Position to Work with Parents

Of the 15,500 students in the Santa Barbara Unified School District, close to 5,000 are classified as English learners (EL). Though the number of eligible students who shook the EL label has increased the past two years — 77 percent of eligible students were reclassified as English proficient this year compared to 56 percent the year before — 672 students have been in the program for five years or more, said Assistant Superintendent Emilio Handall at Tuesday’s board meeting. Also alarming is that 52 percent of special-education students are classified as English learners. “It is not appropriate,” acknowledged Superintendent David Cash.

One of 21 recommendations made Tuesday to the board by the English learner advisory committee was the creation of a director of English learners position to work with parents. A rigorous assessment — coupled with teacher input — is required to shed the EL label that even native English students often have difficulty removing. “Year after year, 75 percent don’t pass,” said Handall of the testing process. “It’s a complete tragedy.” The difficulty rises when parents indicate on enrollment forms that a student lives with a non-English-speaking grandparent, even if the student does not speak a second language. The flip side of the coin is students who risk losing resources if they do not “check the box.”

Though the daily activity for EL students is not considerably different at the elementary school level — they receive 30 minutes of English instruction daily — the problem surfaces, and the stigma potentially rises, at the junior high and high school level. Secondary EL students are required to take English support courses instead of electives. Further, the academic achievement of English learners declined by 14 percent in 2013. (The drop may be attributed to the transition to Common Core, Handall said.)

Money-wise, schools receive an additional $81 per year for each pupil who is an EL student, low-income, or foster youth. At a State of the Schools address last year, some argued that schools kept EL students classified so that they would receive more money, an idea that Cash simply called “false.” Notably, Latino parents have showed up in high numbers at several of the past board meetings to weigh in on the Local Control Accountability Plan, which will implement an EL director when finalized at the next meeting and accompanies a new statewide funding formula aimed at increasing money for districts with higher underrepresented populations

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