Schools are full of adults who aren’t classroom teachers, but a classroom teacher can go through their entire career without really understanding what those other adults do every day. How are they helping students? What can they do to help me? What can I do to help them? This is the first in an occasional series of “explorations” into the sometimes mysterious roles beyond the realm of the “classroom teacher.” In this exploration, Sara Kennedy will take you into the world of the English Language Learner (ELL) Coordinator.
I taught elementary Spanish for a decade before transitioning to a full-time support role as English Language Learner (ELL) Coordinator at High Tech High International. Though I have my Masters degree in TESOL (Teaching English as a Second Language), until moving to California from the Midwest, most of my English teaching experience was limited to my year in elementary classrooms in Spain through a Fulbright grant. Once in California, as a Spanish teacher working with fairly small populations of students classified as English Language Learners, especially in an area where many of those students are from Spanish-speaking families, I found myself filling my prep periods and evenings with bits and pieces of what is now my full-time role: supporting English Language Learners and their families. Teaching multiple grades and levels of Spanish meant that free time was in short supply, so it was just the students and families with the most obvious needs for support who were getting direct time and attention. Even dedicating every moment of free time to supporting students, it was frustrating to realize that most were not getting the support they needed. After my Spanish program was cut due to funding, I jumped at the chance to work as an ELL Coordinator full-time at High Tech High schools.
Although the state of California uses the official classification of “English Language Learner” to describe students who have a legal right to a set of state- and federally-mandated supports from their school, High Tech High is one of many organizations that now use the term “Emergent Multilingual Learners” instead of “English Language Learners.” We do so with the understanding that being multilingual is an ongoing process, looks different for each student and family, and is something to be celebrated! Thus, in this piece, I’ll do what I do every day, which is describe myself using my official title of “ELL Coordinator,” and describe the young people I serve as “emergent multilingual learners.”
Shifting our terms we use to describe these students from “English Language Learner” to “Emergent Multilingual Learner” may seem cosmetic, but it cuts to the heart of my role. Unfortunately, many school programs still treat students learning English from a deficit standpoint: they are lacking English proficiency and need that to be corrected. While getting students proficiency in English allows them access to our school curriculum and is empowering in itself, it is also important to recognize multilingualism as an asset and not a deficit. Emphasizing multilingualism (and bilingualism, for that matter) as a student “superpower” is an ongoing area of growth in education, even though speaking more than one language is self-evidently impressive! Some of the ways I have tried to emphasize bilingualism or multilingualism is by advocating for more opportunities to gain proficiency in languages other than English. I have taught a Spanish 3 Honors elective class in the past, particularly tailoring it to my students who are native Spanish speakers. Recently, California has also expanded the options available for students to receive the State Seal of Biliteracy, and I am working on developing the support for as many students as possible to qualify for that seal by graduation. Supporting clubs like our school branch of MEChA (a Chicanx student organization) is a way to support identity beyond literacy. These specific options are tailored for our Spanish-speaking students, who make up the majority (but not the entirety) of our multilingual students.
Empowerment is not just for our students, but for their families. Building relationships with families is an important part of my job (as it is for any educator) but in particular I have advocated for increased access for families who speak languages other than English. This means helping staff provide information to non-English speaking parents, and collaborating with administration to plan events that are accessible to all families. In addition to the work within the school, I also support our newly formed English Language Advisory Committee, or ELAC, a family-led committee that offers both information to families and a formal structure for families to give input on school support and programming. I hope that by emphasizing and developing opportunities where multilingualism is an advantage, and by continuing to advocate for more accessibility for all parents, I can continue to empower students.
California’s official designation of students as “English Language Learners” happens when a student first enrolls in a public school in the state. If the family indicates there is any other language other than English in the home, the student is given an English test. If that initial test shows any deficits in proficiency, students are classified as “English Language Learners” and tested yearly until they have demonstrated proficiency in reading, writing, listening, and speaking.
To go beyond the rather dry language of official designation, there are many reasons that students come to our schools with the classification of “English Language Learner.” Across the United States, just over 10% of students in public schools are classified as English Language Learners. California has the highest percentage, with over 19%. What that classification means varies broadly. Some students are new to US schools, and gaining proficiency in spoken English along with using it for academic subjects. In our border community, some students are technically new to US schools but are fully bilingual and nearly biliterate when they arrive. Some students have not been able to reclassify due to a disability, especially when separating language differences from language-based disabilities can be complicated. Some students do not reclassify quickly due to interruptions in their education, whether that is civil war, displacement, or just a lack of resources in schools for adequate support. Some students have come to us after years of formal education in another language, and can benefit from supporting texts in another language. Others may have only had classes and literacy support in English, and may not even speak any other language at home. All these students might be on my caseload, but need vastly different supports. In addition, there are many students who need support even though they have been “reclassified” as a result of their most recent test scores. There are also bilingual and multilingual students who may never have been classified as such, due to families indicating that only English is spoken in the home. A wider understanding of literacy and what it means to be an “Emergent Multilingual Learner” means that beyond a label on paperwork, educators may find commonalities in what works to support multilingual students: scaffolds in writing, small group to read and discuss, use of audiobooks to access grade level texts, and—most importantly—a recognition of the richness they and their families bring to our communities.
When I first interviewed for the role of English Language Learner Coordinator at High Tech High International, it was presented to me as a three-part role: supporting students, supporting families, and supporting staff.
Many of the specifics of this role change day to day, but in general the year can be broken down into a few big picture themes. The beginning of the year is dedicated to identifying students who need support, planning those supports, and looping in staff and families. For returning students, at the beginning of the school year my focus is making sure teachers know who is in their class and what support they need. This means I collaborate with the education specialists to meet with classroom teachers by grade level about students on both of our caseloads, especially as there are students where there is overlap—students with disabilities who are also emergent multilingual learners. A lot of time is also spent getting to know incoming freshmen. Unless students are coming from our schools, it can take a while for records to arrive, meaning that we don’t always know which students are emergent multilingual learners at the beginning of the year. I try to find that out in the first weeks of school in a variety of ways: spending time in ninth grade classrooms to get to know students, combing through PowerSchool for clues when it comes to home language, calling schools to track down records, and checking in with individual families and students.
Once I have a sense of which students I will be supporting and what they need, I can plan out the necessary supports, whether that is collaborating with education specialists to make sure our academic coaches are in specific classes with specific groups, planning out small-group support for classes or individual projects, scheduling individual check ins with students, or working with individual teachers to plan supports in their classroom. I use any available information during the school year to identify how to adjust that support. Looking at attendance, grades, and getting feedback from teachers, students, and families lets me know where the levels of support need to be adjusted.
Assessment and reclassification has its own arc. The initial English ELPAC test has to be administered within the first 30 days of school, to any students with another language in the home who are attending school for the first time in California. At our high school level, that is normally only a handful of students—much fewer than at the kindergarten level, for example. The Summative ELPAC is administered in the Spring to all students still classified as ELL, to check their proficiency levels. After each round of assessments, I evaluate test scores of my students to see who might be eligible for reclassification, based on the state ELPAC test, another norm referenced test like the MAP, grades, and parent consultation.
After teaching in a classroom role for over a decade, I have often tried (without much success) to plot this support onto a weekly calendar, like the grids of classes and preps that I’ve always had to guide my planning. The reality is that while this role does involve lots of scheduling, it rarely is the same from day to day or week to week. I have a constantly evolving daily checklist that sometimes is endless but is never boring. Here is an example of what that might look like:
For me, being a full-time staff member responsible for ELL support has meant that even with other roles, I have had the flexibility to adapt to what is needed by administration, teachers, students, and families. I have the schedule flexibility to collaborate with other staff, communicate and meet with parents who work full-time, plan evening parent meetings and workshops, be available when needed for meetings between monolingual staff and families, schedule testing across grades, and work with small groups as needed. All these things could be distributed among a variety of staff and in between teaching another subject, but the fact that I am doing this full-time has provided cohesiveness and relationships that would be more difficult to achieve otherwise. Especially in a year when a global pandemic shuts down schools and schools need to completely reinvent the way they teach, and when the environment of students’ learning experiences are so often beyond our locus of control, I have appreciated this flexibility.
The ultimate goal is to support all of our students to the best of our ability. We are able to do this when we all work together and draw on each other’s expertise and experiences.
Pro Tips for Classroom Teachers
Pro Tips for School Leaders
Pro Tips for Families
Pro Tips for Students
As the duties of this role shift with each academic year and group of students, I am constantly trying to better define and replicate what is working and adapt what is not. At the same time, I have tried to make the details of this support quantifiable, since I know schools are constantly trying to juggle staffing, time, and funding in order to support students. It isn’t always easy to advocate for support that is sometimes hard to define—like a full-time ELL coordinator! With the ways the pandemic has forced us all to reexamine education, I hope that I can continue to advocate for student-centered roles.