Chances are if you’re reading this article, your school enrolls a large number of multilingual students, many of whom are identified for English learner (EL) programming. Across the nation, ELs are the fastest-growing demographic in preK–12 schools, and while many who start in elementary school exit from EL services by fifth grade, others continue in EL courses in the secondary grades. As ELs move into higher grade levels, the content becomes more complex, and the content language demands increase. Meanwhile, the clock is counting down to graduation.
Thankfully, there are many dedicated and multilingual staff who go above and beyond to advocate for ELs within a system that was not designed to meet their needs. No doubt you are one of them.
In this article, I provide some brief focus areas and strategies to help guide your work as a school principal advocating for ELs. Although it may feel overwhelming to consider all the things you need to know and do to support EL achievement, the important thing is that you do something. One success will lead to another success as you and your staff members learn and grow together.
Focus Area No. 1: Know Your Students
ELs have a wide variety of background school experiences, languages, and cultures. Under federal ESSA legislation, schools are required to report progress data on English learners and subsets such as Recently Arrived English Learners (REAL), Students with Limited or Interrupted Formal Education (SLIFE), and Long-Term English Learners (L-TELs). The kind of programming and support provided depends on the identified needs of ELs in your school—the experiences they bring, the learning and language gaps they may have, and their progress in English language development.
As a building and instructional leader, you need to know who your multilingual students are, their stories, what they value, what language and content access looks like, and how to track their learning experiences and achievement. Recognize that ELs often arrive throughout the school year and prioritize giving them a warm welcome. Think of ways to intentionally connect them with other bilingual students or school supports and engage in an interview process that helps your staff learn about students’ strengths, goals, and challenges. Establish a multilingual student advisory council to meet with you regularly and provide feedback on top priorities and needs for their communities. Students are very insightful about what is needed for success, and they can offer creative solutions.
Recently, I asked an EL in high school what his social studies teacher could do to help him learn and he said, “Stop talking so fast while writing on the board and ask us what we need in order to learn.” This seemed very reasonable to me, and we were able to hold a conference with his teacher who had no idea she was presenting information that way.
Focus Area No. 2: Foster a Culture of Empathy and Support for Mental Health
After pandemic disruptions, students and staff are struggling with anxiety and feelings of overwhelm. As a result, social-emotional learning (SEL) has become a high priority in schools. The well-being of multilingual students depends on communication with families in a language they understand. Creating intentional parent connections through translating SEL strategies is crucial to supporting ELs throughout their schooling.
As a building leader, remember to foster an asset-based mindset among your staff—from teachers to custodians to nutrition services staff. Help them learn about students’ cultures and languages and highlight the strengths they bring to the school. Multilingual students are often like icebergs—you see only their struggles with developing English skills. What you don’t see below the surface is anxiety about failing in school, disappointing their family, and other concerns. It can be exhausting for these students.
One way to help them is to create affinity groups to bring together students from the same language or cultural background. These groups can meet during advisory periods or as after-school clubs and allow students to be themselves, meet others who have similar experiences, and connect with a trusted adult who can support them.
If possible, provide opportunities for students to connect with bilingual mental health services in school. Community organizations do partner with schools to provide in-house therapy services, and bilingual/bicultural support in this area is extremely important.
Focus Area No. 3: Monitor Data to Ensure Equal Access
Where does academic knowledge end and English language begin? This question does not have a straightforward answer, so every result for ELs on assessments given in English should be taken with a grain of salt and further data explored. For example, do ELs have access to rigorous courses such as AP, dual enrollment, or advanced math classes? Is there an EL counselor and EL program coordinator who can supply detailed data on EL student course enrollment, academic goals, and skill sets by language group or ethnicity? Monitoring this information will allow you to set micro-goals focused on certain growth areas, such as EL enrollment in AP courses or fewer EL failing grades for a specific language group in science.
Be sure to monitor EL attendance and connect quickly with the student and the family if you start to notice absences. There is strong evidence that if a student has one or more unexcused absences at the beginning of the school year, the trend will escalate. Is the student depressed or working at night and missing the first hour of school due to lack of sleep? ELs increasingly take on more responsibilities as they enter their teen years. This can contribute to a sense of disconnect between the choices students need to make in school and their family members’ knowledge of those choices.
Require all staff (not just bilingual or EL educators) to analyze data and report actions taken to build networks of support (for example, partnerships with family and community resources, restorative circles, safe spaces, and connections with social workers) so there is a record of who has contacted the student and family. EL success is every educator’s responsibility and language should not be a barrier to directly reaching out to families. The data you collect will help build capacity in your school to provide culturally relevant attendance interventions for future ELs, too.
Focus Area No. 4: Champion Language Access
Consider how much the average native English-speaking parent knows and understands about our school systems—how to sign up for school lunch, how to check their child’s grades in an online portal, what to do when school photo packages come home—all of this is new to EL families. The language and technology barriers often lead to children managing the information their parents receive. If parents only receive some information in their home language, and they rarely receive a phone call or personal connection, they aren’t likely to act on that information.
Ultimately, translation is not communication. Translation is a tool that works for some, but it works on the assumption that the family 1) can read in their native language, and 2) understands what the document is about. Even if forms for free and reduced-price lunch (or other services) are translated into many languages, a parent may still not understand what is being asked. They may be unable to answer questions such as “what is your annual income?” They may know how much they make each week, or maybe they only started working two months ago.
To help families in my school district, we have invested in bilingual educational assistants or cultural liaisons. These staff members work hard every day to help families navigate the complex school system. They are trusted members of the community and act as a very important cultural bridge between school and home.
We also use digital tools to record very short messages in different languages so they can be sent out through a robocall or robotext system. We ensure that whoever is in charge of sending out these notices about late buses or school closings also knows to send these to our various language groups. For parent communication and conferences, we use an online interpreting service to create video clips on common practices, such as identifying students for EL services or registering for classes.
For online conferences, video interpretation services can be requested “on demand” when families arrive for the virtual meeting or be scheduled in advance. This service has been a game changer for our multilingual families because we can easily offer conferences in multiple languages, making these meetings more inclusive and efficient. Previously, we offered only a few of the most common languages, such as Spanish and Chinese (Cantonese/Mandarin), in person at schools. During the pandemic, it was very clear to us how little information parents actually received and understood about school. Most messages were sent in English via email (which most parents of ELs lacked) or through robocalls that gave very little information.
As a result, our district created cultural Facebook pages where the bilingual cultural liaisons could host meetings and upload bilingual explanations of new information such as hybrid and distance learning. We also found it easy to send short video clips as URLs in robotexts, which more families were likely to see because they have cellphones (and some may not have a computer).
There are so many ways you can make a difference for ELs, and most of them do not cost anything but some time and attention. Although you did not sign up to change the system, you did sign up to provide leadership to eliminate achievement barriers and open doors of opportunity for young people. ELs and their families need you to make a difference in their educational journey. To that end, pick one area that I’ve discussed to focus on and find the right people to help you drive change.
Thank you for your dedication to ELs. Your efforts will pay off when they cross the graduation stage with huge smiles on their faces as their families beam and cheer.
Kristina Robertson is a multilingual learning supervisor in the Saint Paul Public Schools in Saint Paul, MN.
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