For a Spanish-language version of this story, click here.
Up against a June 30 budget deadline, Superintendent Cindy Marten made an executive decision to save money by shuffling teachers instead of hiring new ones.
But now that the details are starting to shake out, it’s looking like the move will come at a cost to the district’s neediest students: English learners.
To fill the spots, Marten is drawing from a pool of credentialed teachers who spend the majority of their time outside the classroom, assisting students with reading or supporting English learners. They’ll move into classrooms, where they they’ll become lead teachers.
Certain schools won’t have to give up a position, because to do so would mean their classes would rise above their class-size caps, which vary by school and grade-level.
But 46 teachers will make the move, and schools will have to pick up their previous duties. And it will mean more than just a little extra paperwork for principals.
Of the 46 teachers changing roles, 33 previously supported English learners. That’s about 40 to 50 percent of all the English learner support teachers (ELST) in the district, according the district’s Office of Language Acquisition.
Because meeting certain English learner needs – like testing – is mandated by state and federal laws, schools will have to find a way to comply. But losing an ELST also means losing an on-site teacher who can work side by side with students and teachers.
The full impact won’t be clear until the school year gets under way, when principals juggle resources to complete the same amount of work with fewer staff members.
At Carver Elementary in Oak Park, where students speak eight different languages, just over half the school’s students are English learners. Yet, Carver will lose its only ELST next year.
That means that testing students’ proficiency in English – a yearly exam a student has to take if his or her primary language isn’t English – will fall on another staff member. This person will need to be trained.
These English proficiency tests are important. They’re the key factor in determining whether students are classified as English learners, or “reclassified” as fluent or proficient in English.
In addition to their in-school duties, principals say ELSTs are often a bridge to parents, connecting them to their children’s school and explaining what’s going on in the classroom.
Last school year, just over 29,000 students in San Diego Unified were considered English learners – about one in five. Within that number were more than 6,400 long-term English learners, according to the district. That means they’ve been in a U.S. school for six or more years and haven’t mastered the language.
In a February call to action, Marten promised more resources for this group of students.
“This has been a silent problem for too long. Who is fighting for these kids who cannot speak up for themselves?” she told U-T San Diego in May.
Stephanie Mahan, the soon-to-be retiring principal at Carver, knows the decision was part of a series of moves the district is making to close a roughly $106 million budget deficit.
But that doesn’t make the challenge any easier.
“As we’re listening to the plan, we’re all shaking our heads saying, ‘We’ll figure it out, we’ll figure it out,’” said Mahan. “But all the while we have a big stomachache.”
To help schools meet the needs of English learners, the district will beef up support from the central office. Staff members will be assigned as point-people for certain sites, and schools can contact them to schedule a phone or in-person appointment, the district said.
“That’s ridiculous,” said Valentina Hernandez, who served four years as chair of a district advisory committee for English learners. “That would be significantly inadequate. There’s no way (the central office) can provide the same kind of support as an on-site teacher.”
District spokesman Moises Aguirre said it’s important to remember that ELSTs are just one way the district works to meet the needs of English learners. The central office will also help train lead teachers on how to best reach the English learners in their classes.
The district has a comprehensive plan for improvement when it comes to long-term English learners, which you can read here. It’s heavy on facts and strategies, but light on measurable outcomes.
Compounding the situation is the fact that the district is ramping up graduation requirements for the class of 2016. In two years, all students will need to pass a series of courses aligned with entrance requirements for University of California and California State schools.
Only half of all district students who graduated in 2013 earned a C or better in those courses, and the situation was worse for students of color. A study by the Public Policy Institute of California that looked at 2011 graduates who earned Ds or better in college prep courses found the most dramatic gap was between students who had never been English learners, and those who were still considered English learners in grade 12.
District spokesperson Linda Zintz said that the decision to move teachers may pose a hardship for school administrators, but that San Diego Unified hasn’t strayed from its commitment to English learners.
Hernandez said she understands the budget needed to be balanced, but said it’s being done on the back of the district’s neediest students.
“This is a big mistake,” she said. “The district doesn’t know what it’s gotten itself into – and all because of lack of money.”