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Parents, Educators React to Los Angeles Schools' ELL Policy

From guest blogger Alyssa Morones

Two months into the school year, the Los Angeles Unified School District's English-language-learner students will be rearranged into classes based on their English-language proficiency, reports the Los Angeles Times. The district's decision to implement this policy has spurred protests from parents, teachers, and principals.

The change in ELL instruction is a response to an investigation by the U.S. Department of Education's office of civil rights, which determined that the district's English-language-learner services were inadequate, with some students lingering for years in ELL classes.

The district entered an agreement with the office of civil rights in October 2011. Soon after, it began the process of developing a master plan based on an instructional policy set in 2000 that had never been widely implemented. The plan had to be approved by the federal civil rights office before it could be approved by the district school board. 

But the new master plan ignores the question of whether separating students by their English-fluency level is better than including them in classes where they can interact with students with a diverse range of English abilities.

Katherine Hayes, the district's chief research scientist, in an interview with the Times, said the data show that when students are placed with others of a similar language-proficiency level, they become fluent faster. She also said, however, that this is not a subject that has been highly researched.

The article also quotes experts in bilingual education with United Teachers Los Angeles who expressed support for the policy change since it would allow teachers to better focus instruction.

Under the district's plan, a student's English-proficiency level will be the top consideration in forming classes. Students will be assessed two to three times per year, with the goal of moving students to full proficiency within five years. 

Though the plan's aims are to have students move up together to the next proficiency level each year, Hilda Maldonado, the director of multilingual and multicultural education for the district, said in an interview with Education Week, "we know, however, that we're working with individual kids who may progress at different rates."

Therefore, decisions of when to move students up to a new fluency level will be made by individual school sites. 

Parents are petitioning the district to postpone the class reorganizations until next year and have held protest rallies to express their discontent. Meanwhile, 17 South Los Angeles principals penned a letter to Robert Bravo, the instructional superintendent for that part of the district, warning him that the policy could create a "chasm" between their schools' English and non-English-speaking communities.

But Bravo rejected the request to delay and warned principals that they would be subject to disciplinary measures if they failed to honor the policy in their schools.

District officials said they were unsure how many of the district's elementary schools would have to reorganize their classes, since some already organize their students based on English proficiency. They also added that the policy encourages non-core classes, such as physical education, art, and music, to mix students of various proficiency levels.

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