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Easing the Transition of ELLs from Middle to High School

One key to improving the education of English-language learners in high schools is to better ease the transition for such students from middle to high school, says Julia Lara, a longtime expert on English-language learners, in a paper she wrote this fall under a contract with the U.S. Department of Education. For two decades, Lara served as an expert on ELL issues for the Council of Chief State School Officers. She left that organization in 2006 and is now president of a Washington-based consulting company that focuses on ELL issues.

Her paper, co-written with Shelley Harford, an English-as-a-second-language teacher in Maryland's Anne Arundel County Public Schools, explores particularly how ELLs are served in schools that operate as small-learning communities, a model of high school reform that Lara believes holds a lot of promise.

In a phone interview today, Lara described a small-learning community as a school that has only several hundred students and has designated a core group of teachers, and perhaps a counselor, to coordinate instruction for them and monitor their progress.

Lara conducted a survey of how schools that operate as small-learning communities serve ELLs as 9th graders. Seven high schools and one middle school in six different school districts responded to her survey. Lara acknowledged that the sample is very small, but she said some issues pertaining to ELLs really stood out and she suspects they are true in schools beyond the pool that responded to her survey.

The paper says that "the schools that appear to be more attuned to the needs of ELLs employ the following practices: convene summer transitional programs for 8th-grade ELLs; hold Saturday and summer programs for students with interrupted schooling; and conduct classroom observations to ensure alignment between the 8th and 9th grade curriculum."

Lara said in the phone interview that the staff at two of the high schools met with parents and staff of local middle schools to talk about student transition. They explored whether the curricula at the high school matched well the curriculum at the middle school. But such a focus on transition is "atypical," she said.

In the 11 years I've written about ELLs for EdWeek, no administrator at any kind of high school has brought up with me the topic of how to ease the transition of ELLs from 8th grade to 9th grade. So I surmise that Lara is onto something here in identifying transition from middle to high school as an issue that is worthwhile for secondary school educators to explore further.

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