A year after San Diego Unified promised it would compensate for cutting a crucial lifeline for English-learning students, the parents of those students say they’re still no better off.

At the end of the 2013-2014 school year, Superintendent Cindy Marten directed every school to cut one full-time position. For 52 schools, that meant cutting the resource teachers who helped English-learners.

In the past, English-learner support teachers, or ELSTs, primarily looked after English-learners in schools. ELSTs administered tests to ensure students progressed, and worked with mainstream teachers to make lessons plans more accessible to students who struggled with language.

They also served as a bridge between classrooms and families, communicating with parents about what was happening in schools, and how kids were doing academically.

The end result of the cuts, parents feared, would mean fewer teachers to directly support the most vulnerable students. Adding insult to injury was the fact that nobody seemed to understand the system that would replace the previous one.

Now, more than a year after the changes were made, parent Gabriela Contreras-Misirlioglu said nothing’s changed: “There is no plan.”

The district disagrees with that. It has something it considers a plan, even if it’s vague.

But Contreras-Misirlioglu’s confusion underscores a major disconnect between San Diego Unified and marginalized parents. In January, she was part of a group of 200 parents who filed a uniform complaint against the district for failing to meet children’s educational needs.

Among the concerns expressed in the complaint: Parents of English-learners have been denied the chance to provide input in any meaningful way; the district’s elimination of the ELST positions jeopardized students’ academic progress; recommendations from parent committees have been ignored; outreach efforts have been negligible.

As the district is obliged to do with a uniform complaint, it filed a written response. The gist: The concerns were unfounded.

First, the district didn’t cut ELSTs, general counsel Andra Donovan wrote. Every school had to cut a full-time position; principals decided which positions to give up. (This is true. However, principals at the time said ELSTs were the only position they could cut).

Outreach responsibilities largely fall to principals, Donovan said, but the district has done its part to engage parents. Parents are invited to take advantage of the district’s San Diego Parent University, for example, where they can enroll in classes to learn how to support their kids academically.

There are also Family Fridays, which, Donovan wrote, “have been a huge success.” To underscore the significance of the Family Fridays initiative, Donovan’s provided a description:

“Parents are invited to the school one Friday a month to read aloud with their child for 30 minutes. After the read-aloud, parents are invited to the auditorium to discuss their read aloud experiences and learn new strategies (listed on a handy bookmark) to enhance reading sessions.”

Donovan also outlined the long-term plan for supporting English-learners, which is as pointed and coherent as any district staff members have laid out previously.

Staffers have touched on these strategies in a couple different board meetings, but descriptions have been jargon-laden and short on specifics. In any case, it has missed the parents whose children it directly affects. Ironically, it took a written complaint to motivate the district to provide an accessible plan.

Here are a couple key pieces to keep in mind. Most importantly, judging by the results – dropouts, graduation rates, test scores – English-learner instruction in San Diego Unified has been an abject failure.

For the past several years, the dropout rate for English-learners has been three times higher than the district average. Last fall, the district released data that showed a mere 9 percent of English-learners were on track to graduate.

Until this year, as Donovan’s response underscores, how to serve English-learners has been largely left up to individual schools, principals and teachers. There’s been little uniformity, and while small pockets like Kearny High have done well, successful strategies haven’t been implemented districtwide.

Under the new plan, more responsibility for English-learners shifts to the district’s central office. Not exactly a “bottom-up” reform, as has been the district’s mantra for the past decade, but again, the silo approach hasn’t been working out.

Here are a couple strategies the district will try out:

Coordinated Testing

This one really comes down to compliance. Federal law mandates schools test kids, assessing their levels of English proficiency. This happens once when they enter school, then again annually. This test helps guide kids into the right classes, and is a way to make sure they’re making progress.

In the past, ELSTs administered tests, so schools that lost those teachers have had to designate a new point-person to shoulder the task. It’s more than just handing kids a piece of paper and scoring the results – there’s an oral component to the assessment, and room for proctors to make judgement calls.

In short, test administrators have to know what they’re doing. Staff from the central office will step in to coordinate with testing until schools have people trained and ready to carry the load.

Grow and Engage Parent Committees

This piece is crucial. It’s also the part that needs the most work.

California is unique in that the state Department of Education requires schools to create parent committees that advise principals and school staff on what kinds of supports English-learners need. There’s also a district-level advisory committee, which serves a similar purpose.

If there are issues at schools, the thinking goes, they’re brought to the school’s English-learner parent committee, which voices them. Members of those same committees take issues to the district-level advisory committee. It sounds good and democratic.

The problem is that for the past couple of years, members of that district-level parent committee have been mired in toxic conflict – between themselves, and with district staffers. The discussion about what things English-learners actually need has been lost in the shuffle.

Back at the school-site level, it’s not always easy to get parents to engage. There may be a lot of reasons for that. Maybe parents are working three jobs and don’t have the time. Perhaps they don’t know about the meetings because notifications haven’t been translated from English. Or maybe they simply don’t feel they’ll be listened to.

That’s the sense from one parent, Francisca Salcedo. She said her past efforts to engage the principal at Rodriguez Elementary, in Logan Heights, have been rebuffed.

“The principal and teachers, they don’t want to speak with parents. They blame the parents, and they blame the children,” she said. “As Latino parents, it’s like we’re invisible. It’s like we’re not there.”

Put simply, parents of English learners aren’t as organized as other parent groups. Thus, they lack sufficient political capital to force the district to listen. Whatever the reason for the disconnect, this needs to improve.

Mind the Data

If you catch English-learners before they slip off track academically, they won’t have to play catch up in middle and high school. But to do that, schools need better data.

To that end, the district has created an early warning system: If students are missing school, getting in trouble or failing courses, their names are flagged so counselors or teachers can intervene. The district will try to do more of this.

Quality Teaching

There’s a lot wrapped up in this idea, some of which has little to do with actual teaching strategies. Things like making sure schools offer classes students need, or being careful not to cram too many English-learners into a single class – those things matter very much.

That said, with fewer ELSTs, mainstream teachers will be responsible for creating lessons that are accessible to English-learners. This could mean incorporating lots of visual aids into lessons, frequently checking for understanding and encouraging oral participation.

Some of this sounds like common sense, or just sound teaching. But it’s hard to do well, and takes a lot of planning on the front end. So teachers have also been getting trained on strategies.

On one hand, asking mainstream teachers to become experts in teaching English-learners, something that takes years to master, seems like an impossible task. On the other, teachers at Kearny High have been doing a version of this for years – albeit with a lot of help from supporting staff members. So that’s a piece of the challenge: putting in place those needed supports at all schools.

What’s most striking about this plan is how little it has evolved in the past year. The district will continue to legally meet its requirements, and continue to test kids. But that’s a pretty low bar.

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

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