It just keeps getting worse for English learners in San Diego Unified.

This past summer the district started cutting a program for English learners – who already have the highest dropout rate in the district – and parents are now wondering what happened to the teachers who used to help their kids.

Back in June, Superintendent Cindy Marten needed a fast way to balance a budget shortfall – the money the district saved by encouraging senior teachers to retire early wasn’t enough to fill the gap.

So she took executive action. She decided to take the teachers who give extra support to students struggling with reading or English, and put them into their own classrooms. That would save money by avoiding extra hires, but it would also mean losing those positions.

English learners are bearing brunt of that decision. This past summer, the district said 33 English language support teachers – about half the ELSTs in the district – would make the move.

Now the district says it’s going to be more than that. How many, it can’t say – principals have another week to make case that their school can’t spare the cuts. Some schools could be waived.

This is happening at a time when schools across the district are shuffling teachers. The beginning of each school year means the district takes teachers from better-staffed schools and moves them to schools with fewer teachers.

The number of teachers at a school is determined by how many students attend. And because the district doesn’t take a final headcount until the last week of September, it can’t make staff changes until several weeks into the school year. When the final tally comes in, the district takes schools that have extra teachers and moves them to schools that are shorthanded.

That’s the idea, anyway. It’s nothing new, but that doesn’t help ease concern for parents. Last week, parents at Spreckels Elementary criticized the district’s plan to cut a regular fulltime teacher from the school because their official enrollment count was lower than projected.

Spreckels will only lose one teacher, but parents there told NBC7 that the move will have a ripple effect: A quarter of the students will now be put in combo classes – basically two grades stuck together in one big class – and other students will be shuffled around right after getting settled.

Schools are exempted from the fall shuffle if losing a teacher means combo classes for half the school’s students, or if losing a teacher raises class sizes above a cap, which is based on the contract with the teachers union and varies by age group.

Jennifer Niskey knows that combo classes can be a pain, but said the situation is much more serious at Lafayette Elementary School in Clairemont, where she works with about 50 English learners a day.

Niskey is one of the English learner support teachers slotted to move. She’ll stay at Lafayette, but she’ll leave her position to become a lead classroom teacher. In the process, she’ll bump a third grade teacher from her spot – because that teacher had less seniority.

It’s not the sudden role change that concerns Niskey.


“I’m a teacher. This is what I do. I’ll be fine. This is about what the kids are losing,” she said.

Niskey said she’s spent the majority of her time working with students one-on-one, helping other teachers design lessons for English learners, or communicating with students’ families.

That’s different from the message the district put out this past summer, when it said ELSTs spent the bulk of their time on administrative tasks, like making sure English learners are given their yearly tests, which is legally mandated. The district could pick up the slack, it said, by providing more support from the central office. School principals would have to find a way to cover the rest.

San Diego Unified has given mixed messages about the effectiveness of English learner support teachers. But essentially, it sees ELSTs as one way to support English learners – not the only way.

In fact, Joe Austin, Hoover High’s principal, said losing the support positions could actually improve teaching overall. He said in the past, he’s visited San Diego classrooms where teachers didn’t know who the English learners even were within their classes – let alone the best way to teach to them.

Coupled with the extra strategies teachers will learn in training sessions, teachers might now take greater responsibility for English learners, and work to reach them during class, he said.

But Gabriela Contreras, former vice chair of the district’s English learner advisory group, said that parents are just starting to understand what the cuts mean for their children. And they’re not happy.

“You have to understand some of those parents did not even now that this was about to happen. Right now the community is starting to feel the heartbreaking consequences of the unilateral action that the superintendent took, without our input, without our say. They’re just now learning those teachers don’t exist, or that their kid has been pushed into a big class,” Contreras said.

Contreras plans to organize with other advocates and parents. The school board will be hearing from them next meeting, she said.

She’s got some questions, too, like what the district is going to do to help English learners now that the cuts have been made. It’s a good question. The district has a plan, at least on paper, but much of it includes vagaries like looking closely at data and forming a task force.

“We want to understand in a clear, simple way, what this will mean for our kids,” Contreras said. “And we want to hear in a clear way what they’re going to do about it.”

Mario was formerly an investigative reporter for Voice of San Diego. He wrote about schools, children and people on the margins of San Diego.

Leave a comment

We expect all commenters to be constructive and civil. We reserve the right to delete comments without explanation. You are welcome to flag comments to us. You are welcome to submit an opinion piece for our editors to review.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.