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San Diego Focuses on Accurate Identification of ELLs With Disabilities

Pinpointing why any student struggles academically is an art and a science. There are any number of family and environmental factors to consider, based on a good understanding of students' personal circumstances, as well as the physical and cognitive issues that educators are able to evaluate more precisely.

But when it comes to identifying the cause of an English-language learner's academic troubles, the process takes on a whole different level of complexity. Is an ELL struggling because he or she doesn't understand the language? Or is there another explanation unrelated to language acquisition? My colleague Nirvi Shah and I delved into this difficult issue in a story this week that takes a look at some of the bigger-picture challenges of accurately identifying and serving a group of students who fall into the subcategory of an English-learner with a disability.

A good deal of our story explains an effort under way in the San Diego district—which has been working to reverse a long-standing trend of referring a disproportionate number of English-learners to special education. A near-lawsuit and a pair of studies that exposed some major flaws prompted the district to set about enacting dramatic changes to how it approaches the identification of ELLs in need of special education services.

Since last fall, San Diego schools have begun using a detailed, clearly articulated process that rules out every possible extrinsic factor—such as nutrition, mental health, parental involvement (or lack thereof), and quality of previous language instruction—to explain why a child is lagging academically. The process also spells out specific interventions for educators to use to address any of those issues that are flagged. Only when those interventions are exhausted and students still don't improve are they referred to special education for an evaluation.

Like any major shift in practice, this requires a Herculean professional development effort. District officials shared some of the details from their professional development program with us, and what they have put together requires some 30 hours of training for teachers, special education staff, counselors, and administrators. The training is broken down into separate classes that examine each category of factors that educators must weigh for each ELL once a student is flagged as having trouble in school. For example, there's a four-hour class that focuses just on the physical, psychological, personal and cultural factors that might be impacting an ELL's school performance. Another four-hour class looks at the role that a child's previous experiences with academic language instruction, as well as English-language development, plays. Yet another class zeroes in on the process of second language development. And so on.

San Diego district leaders told me they are confident they've developed a very thoughtful process to turn around what has been an over-reliance on referrals to special education when ELLs are struggling. The hard part, they acknowledge, is getting all the players on board to change their practice as they head into the new school year.

The U.S. Department of Education is about to launch an exploratory study on this issue, looking at a handful of districts around the country. I'd love to hear from any of you who know of districts working hard to make sure ELLs are identified for special education accurately and in a timely manner.

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