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Calif. Advocacy Group for ELLs Wins National Recognition

If you read this space with any regularity, then you already know a little about the work of Californians Together, a small nonprofit group that has, in recent years, been reshaping the debate about teaching language in California and beyond.

On Monday in Baltimore, Californians Together is being honored for its work on behalf of English-learners by the Migration Policy Institute, which is also singling out three other entities for what it calls "exceptional immigrant integration initiatives." As part of its recognition, Californians Together will be awarded $50,000.

The group formed in 1998, the same year that voters in California approved Proposition 227, a statewide measure that all but banned bilingual education programs in public schools. Shelly Spiegel-Coleman, the group's executive director, has brought an array of education groups and advocates for poor children together to jointly advocate for the state's 1.5 million English-learners—a quarter of California's public school enrollment.

Through its development and strong advocacy for a "seal of biliteracy," Californians Together are very deftly helping to change the mindset that having a primary language that is not English is an asset, not a deficit that must be overcome. This year, both California and New York began offering the special seal to high school graduates who demonstrate proficiency in English and at least one other language. The group conceived of the biliteracy seal and has been a strong advocate for other states to adopt a special recognition of students with multilingual skills, including those who demonstrate proficiency in American Sign Language. The seal is intended for all students, including ELLs.

But where the group stands to make its biggest mark on education policy is for those English-language learners who, for years, have been stalled in their progress toward becoming fluent. Within another week, California Gov. Jerry Brown must act on legislation that Californians Together wrote to require the state education department to break out and report data annually on long-term English-learners—tens of thousands statewide—for every school district. The measure would also create a common, statewide definition for long-term ELL students. Students at risk of becoming long-term ELLs would also be flagged. I wrote about the effort in this week's issue of Education Week.


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