Los Angeles schools' plan for non-English speakers: Segregation or solution?

Los Angeles schools are moving forward with a plan to separate English language learner students from native speakers in all core elementary school classes. Protests have erupted.

Nick Ut/AP/File
Mark Rosenbaum, chief counsel for the ACLU of Southern California, (l.) speaks in April during a news conference in Los Angeles about 20,000 students in California who need to learn English aren't getting adequate language instruction.

Plans to separate Los Angeles elementary school students who are not fluent in English from native speakers in all core classes is drawing fire, as educators and parents say the move will make the students "second-class citizens" in their own schools.

The policy is an attempt to improve the performance of non-English-speaking students in response to a two-year-old federal civil rights lawsuit. Test results show that as many as 50,000 district students classified as "English Language Learners" (ELLs) in kindergarten never become proficient.

The issue is particularly urgent for the Los Angeles Unified School District because California is one of a handful of English-only states that requires instruction in English, and LAUSD has almost 200,000 ELLs – nearly a third of overall enrollment.

The district's two-year "master plan," however, has come in for sharp criticism from those who see it as a form of segregation.

Such a move will add to the isolation and stigmatization of these learners, says Robert Hershberger, a Spanish professor and textbook author at DePauw University in Greencastle, Ind. This renders “them as second-class citizens who don't deserve the same treatment as their peers,” he says in an e-mail interview. [Editor's note: The original version of this paragraph misspelled Professor Hershberger's name.]

Others agree. The social and political ramifications are wide-reaching, says Edward Fierros, associate professor of education at Villanova University in Philadelphia.

“What we know from research on English Language Learners is that these populations are already hypersegregated in their communities,” he says via e-mail.   Latino ELLs tend to live in Spanish-speaking communities that are limited socially, politically, and economically, he says, and by systematically segregating ELLs in schools “these limitations are exacerbated.” 

To critics of the LAUSD plan, a long line of research literature and common sense suggests that ELLs have a better opportunity to learn English if they are placed with their English-speaking peers.

“This language should not be taught in isolation, but rather in a diverse setting with their future peers and possible colleagues in attendance,” says Ronald  Solórzano, a former LAUSD bilingual elementary school teacher and current chairman of the education department at Occidental College, in an e-mail.

Principals and teachers alike have organized protests, asking that implementation of the policy be delayed. One parent in Granada collected 162 parent signatures demanding a postponement and spoke against the policy at a Los Angeles Board of Education meeting last week, according to the Los Angeles Times. 

But district officials say the protests are misinformed. Far from discounting the needs of ELL students, this plan is designed to address them, they say.

“What our research unearthed was that between 40[,000] and 50,000 students who began in kindergarten as [English] language learners continue on into high school not ever having reached reclassification as English proficient,” says Hilda Maldonado, director of multilingual and multicultural education for LAUSD. “That is part of the findings, and we are being held accountable.”

The policy now, she adds, is to intervene at the elementary level and create classes specifically tailored to meet these students’ needs.

Meanwhile, principals who are responsible for implementing the new policies at each school are being encouraged to mainstream children with limited English skills in non-core subjects such as physical education and art.

“Parents may not understand all the programming required for a full day,” says Ms. Maldonado. “They are just reacting to the new rules.”

Research to support the current policies is lagging behind implementation, she acknowledges. But the district is focused on the issue. “We’re meeting with a team of researchers at Stanford University next month.”

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