The Santa Barbara Unified School District is reviewing three potential curriculum options for emergent multilingual learners (EML), or students whose primary language is not English. | Credit: Paul Wellman (file)

The Santa Barbara Unified School District (SBUSD) is reviewing three potential curriculum options for emergent multilingual learners (EML), or students whose primary language is not English. The new curriculum is one of several steps the district is taking to bridge the education gap and build a relationship with students and their families whose native language is not English.

Students who learn English as a second language are in a unique position of learning multiple languages, including their own native language, while also learning everything any other student is expected to learn. “In many ways, the needs of these students are very unique,” said Superintendent Hilda Maldonado. “Speaking and writing is a real challenge when learning a second language.”

At the April 12 school board meeting, a mid-year progress report composed of STAR reading and math scores included a breakdown of scores by language. EML students had significantly lower scores than students who were reclassified as fluent. In 3rd- through 6th-grade students, 13 percent of students met or exceeded standards for reading, and in math, 7 percent met or exceeded standards. At the junior high level, 4 percent of students met or exceeded standards in reading, and 2 percent met or exceeded standards in math. These scores do not represent the entire EML population of the district, only including scores for about 750 students out of more than 1,900 EML students, and did not include any scores for EML students at the high school level.

At the following school board meeting on April 26, the District English Learner Advisory Committee (DELAC), made up of parents of EML students, district employees, and community members, provided its annual recommendations to the board on how to support EML students, and what steps the district can take to ensure more EML students are reclassified as fluent by the time they reach high school.

Alejandra Gutierrez, city councilmember and lead family engagement liaison for the district, told the Independent that reclassification of EML students is crucial, as it allows them to participate in courses that will prepare them for higher education. “Kids are moving on without being reclassified,” Gutierrez said. “If they’re not reclassified by high school, they won’t be able to participate in college prep courses, and they won’t be qualified for a four-year college.”

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Gutierrez and Rocio Pacheco Garcia, a family engagement liaison for the district, are both members of DELAC and said family engagement was a major recommendation for the district. Family engagement recommendations included providing Spanish translations of school board meetings and hiring more family engagement liaisons for every elementary school. Currently, there are 16 family engagement liaisons throughout the district. “Liaisons are the bridge between parents and school leadership,” Gutierrez said. They are able to connect with Spanish-speaking parents who have often been left out of crucial conversations due to the language barrier. “For the longest time, that population of parents has not had their own space in education,” she said. “Going through the district can be hard enough for parents who are fluent in English.”

DELAC also made a recommendation to adopt a new EML curriculum for the 2022-23 school year, specifically for EML students in 7th through 12th grade. The district is currently in the review process for three curricula. The review period for these curricula will end on May 30, and the selected materials will be put into effect in the fall. The public may view these materials in the district office. 

The materials in review are iLit ELL, a reading, writing, and speaking tool that accelerates English language development through interactive content, visual aids, academic vocabulary support, survival vocabulary, and home language help; National Geographic, which is geared toward teenage Emergent Multilingual Learners and provides the academic language and literacy skills necessary for understanding cross-curricular subjects and literature from around the world; and StudySync, which provides resources that are literacy-focused and organized around a first read, a close read, and an associated skill lesson and emphasize explicit vocabulary instruction, language acquisition, and reading comprehension.

The DELAC also called on the district to decrease the significant disproportionality or overidentification of Latine students as special education. Oftentimes, a student is identified as special education by an educator and with permission of the parents will be assessed to determine if this is true. The issue arises, Maldonado said, when teachers or educators misinterpret a student looking for the right words.

Pacheco Garcia said this issue could be partially remedied with family engagement and involving parents in the process of identifying a student as special education. Many parents, she said, are unaware of their ability to participate in these decisions. “When bringing a student to a special education meeting, we need to ask ourselves if this student is an emergent multilingual learner, and if they have gotten primary, long-term support,” Maldonado said. 

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