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Eye on the Small-Schools Movement: What Happens with ELLs?


Some of my sources have been telling me that I should look into how the break-up of large comprehensive high schools into small schools is affecting English-language learners. Well, Samual G. Freedman, a professor of journalism at Columbia University, has beaten me to doing some very concrete reporting on this topic. He wrote a piece that ran in the New York Times on May 9 focusing on how English-language learners apparently aren't being served as well as they were before Columbus High School in the Bronx became part of the small-schools movement.

The story of the numbers alone is interesting. Three years ago, Mr. Freedman writes, Columbus was a traditional high school with 548 ELLs among its 3,491 students. Now, he says, the Columbus campus has 3,389 students--about the same as it had three years ago--but only 344 students are ELLs. And fewer than a third of those 344 students are in the small schools on campus, which don't have to accept such students until after they've been operating for two years.

"So where did the missing 200 ELLs go?," he writes. "Nobody at the department suggests that the number of immigrant students has suddenly dropped. ... And what is the quality of the English-as-a-second-language services they are receiving there?"

That last question is one that I'd like to put to a number of small-schools arrangements across the country.

Bethany Plett, a teacher of English as a second language who is getting a Ph.D in education at Texas A&M in College Station, also presented findings on this issue at the recent conference of Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages in Seattle. She contends that a requirement by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, a key funder of efforts to divide large high schools into smaller ones, that ELLs not be concentrated in one single small school after a break-up of a large school makes it harder for educators to address the needs of such students.

For more on how ELLs are being served--or not being served--by small schools in New York City, read a report published in 2006 by Advocates for Children of New York and the New York Immigration Coalition.


(Sent to the NY State Board of Regents and Education Commissioner, Richard Mills on May 9, 2007)

Today's article in the New York Times by Samuel G. Freedman is the "smoking gun" exposing the array of discriminatory actions and inactions of the NYC Department of Education visited on English Language Learners as a result of the Department's small high school policies and practices. I call on all responsible government officials to take immediate action.

The list of grievances below is long and deals with conditions in only one high school building in the New York City public school system. Those conditions are found in many other high schools and are illegal and intolerable. They call out for oversight hearings by the City Council and State Legislature's Education Committees. They also call out for sanctions and interventions by the state and federal government bodies including the State Education Commissioner. The Office of Civil Rights in the federal Dept. of Education is currently investigating the discrimination against students with disabilities by the City's new small high schools, after a complaint filed by the Citywide Council on High Schools.

Partial List of Grievances:

1. Denial of basic mandated ESL/bilingual instruction (Aspira Consent Decree-Lau Plan, Part 154 Commissioner's Regulations, NCLB, Title III, etc.);

2. Denial of additional mandated periods of ESL/ELA instructional as per Regents Learning Standards;

3. Lack of permanently certified ESL teachers teaching ESL classes and presence of teachers teaching out of license;

4. Failure to create bilingual education classes in the downsized Columbus H.S. where there are 258 enrolled ELLs
(arguably enough ELLs in the same native language - Spanish, at least - at the same grade level );

5. Denial of access for ELLs to the four minischools for their first two years of operation, despite choice being a core principle and rationale for the creation of smaller high schools;

6. Minischool H.S. principal's ignorance re. basic local, state and federal education policies (see quotation of Mr. Rick Levine of Global Enterprise Academy);

7. Lack of "basic teaching materials as textbooks and work sheets for ELLs at any level" (according to Becca Shin, ESL teacher at Global Enterprise Academy);

8. Dispersion of ELLs from Columbus H.S. to other Bronx H.S.s (there are 200 fewer ELLs on Columbus campus from three years ago: a decrease of 36.5%).

Please take action now to stop this discrimination!

Luis O. Reyes, Ph.D.

Coordinator, CEEELL
Coalition for Educational Excellence for English Language Learners

[email protected]

ELLs are just the tip of the iceberg. Equally underserved is special education, honors courses, advanced level courses, foreign language, physical education, art and music, electives and any other courses that can't draw the numbers from small schools - both in students and qualified teachers.

The problem isn't that small schools WON'T take these populations. It is that they CAN'T - in substantial enough numbers - and still be a small school. Even though we all know they dump these populations into the large high schools, or just don't bother to serve them - creating artificial discrepancies in performance between large and small schools - the fact of the matter is the small school movement will NEVER address these issues, because they can't.

And let's not even get into the dysfunction inherent when multiple principals vie for power within one building. Do you think Microsoft would be a successful company if Bill Gates had to get a consensus on every policy from five other co-CEOs?

If rational minds prevail, the small school movement will disintegrate like the large campuses they replaced, but don't hold your breath.

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