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Audit: ELLs Lack Access to Core Curriculum in Portland

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I tracked down a report of an audit by Oregon education officials of programs for English-language learners in the Portland, Ore., school district that The Oregonian reported on early last month.

I share the audit report, which includes state officials' requirements for how Portland schools must improve programs for ELLs, with you because it touches on weaknesses in programs that I think are common in school districts. The main points of the audit are that the school system is not meeting state and federal laws because not all English-language learners in the district have access to the core curriculum. Also the audit requires that the school district provide more training for mainstream teachers to learn techniques for working with English-language learners.

Diana Fernandez, the director of programs for ELLs in the Portland district, told me in a phone interview that she welcomed the audit and requirements by the state to provide more consistency in programs for ELLs across the school district. "It emphasizes the sense of urgency we have ... This gives us leverage to say, 'This needs to happen,' " she said.

The school district has a limited number of dual-language programs at the elementary school level, in which students who are dominant in English and students who are dominant in another language learn both languages together, according to Fernandez. But most ELLs in grades K-8 receive help to learn English through pull-out classes in English as a second language. At the high school level, ELLs receive one class period of ESL each day and otherwise attend regular classes or in schools with a high number of ELLs, they may attend classes where "sheltered" techniques designed for ELLs are used.

Fernandez said the audit's complaint that not all ELLs have access to the core curriculum refers to students who are at the middle and upper levels of proficiency in English, not newcomers to the district. Not all ELLs are being scheduled for the rigorous courses they need to graduate. Some aren't being offered the sheltered instruction they need, she said.

In response to the audit, the district is stepping up its training of mainstream teachers in methods to teach ELLs, Fernandez said. The goal is to have the ELLs with intermediate and advanced proficiency more mixed with native-speakers of English, she said.

The Feb. 10 audit report says that within 60 days of receipt of the report, the district must have trained its first cohort of teachers in sheltered instruction. Also within 60 days, the district must revise schedules of ELLs to ensure that each one is enrolled in all required core content classes, the report says.

I think all educators should be asking the question of their own school district: Do all ELLs have access to required core content classes?

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I have worked with some of the largest school districts in the state of California and I would have to say that many English learners are not receiving access to the core curriculum as they should. This is largely due to structural problems within the school system that create barriers for such students.

One might be inclined to think that access to the core curriculum would be ensured if students are placed in bilingual or dual language programs. However, this is not the case. The problem does not actually lie with any structural barriers within the school system. The issue is that English learners in bilingual education programs aren't begin given access to core materials in Spanish.

For example, there are districts in California who have adopted Spanish math materials over a year ago and still do not have access to the state-adopted materials in Spanish. The publishers state that the issue lies with the Spanish materials reviewers in the state of California. Today I contacted the California Department of Education and they informed me that the issue was with the publisher-that they had not submitted their final revisions to the CDE. Nonetheless, students in bilingual programs in various districts do not have access to state adopted programs in Spanish and are using old materials.

This same issue occurred with the Science adoption. Districts with bilingual programs had to wait almost two years to get their core Science materials in Spanish.

This is not only going on with the bilingual classes, however. In one large district in California, various publishers came to present to the district adoption committee regarding the upcoming language art programs that are to be adopted. Large publishers arrived to present their programs that they claimed were designed to meet the needs of English learners, but they brought incomplete products. They stated that they were still in the process of revising their curriculum and that not all the pieces were ready. I ask the question: If publishers can not even bring complete sets of materials designed to meet the needs of English learners for a presentation to a District adoption committee, then how on Earth can District's ensure that ELs are having access to core content?

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