UnidosUS Conference Panelists Advocate for Support and Integration of Multilingual Learners in the American Workforce

Resilience. It’s a powerful word in many contexts, and one of those is in the context of language acquisition and preservation. During UnidosUS’s 2022 annual conference, a group of panelists with a background in teaching and educational administration shared how multilingual students – now 10% of the U.S. K-12 population — suffered some of the largest academic pandemic-era setbacks.  New data from the U.S. Department of Education shows that since that time, these students were 1.5 times more likely than their peers to read below grade level and their levels of disengagement were 3% higher than their peers.

Support systems for multilingual learners were weak before the pandemic started and were only exacerbated during a time where the nation was hit by a global pandemic, online learning and uncertainty. At the same time, they noted that these challenging times have also led to new opportunities for innovation, dialogue, and a push for greater funding to improve the outlook for emergent, bilingual, and English Learner (EL) youth. These are students who grow up speaking one or more languages at home, and include U.S.-born children whose parents speak a language other than English to them. During early childhood, they  are now commonly referred to as dual language learners (DLLs). According to data collected by UnidosUS, two thirds of the U.S. students who represent all of the above terms are Latino.

Adriana Abundis, a master teacher at Lanier High School in San Antonio Independent School District, moderated the panel.

“Our conditions of determination, of resilience, lead us to become collectivized, not as simply past participants, but future and present knowledge keepers, language keepers and culture keepers of this land and of our beautiful languages,” she said, adding “there is no learning without community, and there is no liberation without community.”

With that in mind, Supreet Anand, Deputy Director of the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of English Language Acquisition (OELA), began the conversation by talking about how the community can engage the government to help to make up for lost time, and hopefully, to build back better.

“It’s very important for us to understand the issues so that we can respond appropriately. We also know that the U.S. education system was not built to deal with extended shutdowns, like those that were imposed by the COVID 19 pandemic,” she said. “We have a lot of federal funds through the American Rescue Plan that are in place to help states and districts respond. But we also know that funding is only a part of the answer to tackle these longstanding historical inequities in education.”

In addition to lost academic learning, she emphasized that recognizing youth, especially those from the underserved communities so many ELs belong to, also lost family members and jobs, and suffered from social isolation, all of which create obstacles to the focus and dedication language learning requires. Those losses also undermine these students’ chances of attending and finding more sustainable work.

“The good news is that it’s not too late to mitigate this stress, but we have to start, and we have to provide actionable steps,” she said.

What is the Profile of an Emerging Bilingual or English Language Learner?

The panelists for this event, Education Recovery for English Learners, were alumni of a 2020-2021 California cohort of UnidosUS’s National Institute of School Leaders (NILSL) Fellowship. The fellows have helped transform California’s English-only curriculum into one that elevates the strength in multilingualism across California schools. The fellows have first-hand experience navigating an education system that hasn’t always valued multilingualism, and UnidosUS hopes that their experiences before, during, and after the pandemic can serve as an example for educators and leaders across our nation.

One of the first actionable steps the panelists discussed was rewriting the narrative about the terms English Learners (ELs) or English Language Learners (ELLs). While these are the official terms utilized by the U.S. government, many advocates prefer the terms emerging bilinguals or multilingual learners to acknowledge that these students come into the U.S. school system with pre-existing linguistic and cultural knowledge.

“I think the biggest disadvantage is that in the educational system, we still do not recognize those assets and build on students’ cultural capital,” said panelist Veronica Madrigal, the principal of Henry Elementary in California’s Long Beach Unified School District. “Students come with a wealth of knowledge, and we as educators and the other students in the classroom can benefit from learning from those assets.”

While schools are mandated not to disclose a student’s immigration status, Madrigal noted that it is still important to find ways to recognize the life experiences of diverse students, such as those who came here through a perilous migrant journey. One way to do that is to develop culturally responsive curricula for the classrooms and for all faculty and staff, so that everyone is more aware of and sensitive to the wisdom and insights of the students they serve.

“Let’s think about the fact that they know Spanish or Chinese or whatever language they know as an asset that we celebrate… that we honor,” said panelist Jonathan Tiongco, the founding principal and executive director of the Los Angeles-based K-12 Innovation and Technology Complex Alliance Marine. He said that attitude is reflected in what teachers are assigned to teaching English learners.

“Unfortunately, you put your rookie teachers, your beginning teachers, in those English Learner classes, and then your veteran teachers go teach the honors classes,” Tiongco said. “One thing that we talk about at my school is that teaching English Learners, teaching our intervention classes is not a punishment. It is not a consequence of youth or a consequence of lack of experience. It is something that we need to celebrate.”

Getting the Right Support

But celebrating these community assets requires well-coordinated support, and that’s especially challenging under the current federal budget for ELs, which has remained the same for decades, even as the EL population continues to grow.

“Funding isn’t keeping up with the rate of growth of English learners, especially when we account for inflation,” UnidosUS Education Policy Analyst Kendall Evans told ProgressReport.co. “While funding technically increased 25% between FY2002 and FY2022 [from $664 million to $831 million], it has decreased 24% over that same timespan in inflation dollars.”

Tiongco says these disadvantages really affect the elementary schools which are key to setting a strong foundation for ELs so that they are more successful as they move into secondary classrooms.

Garcia-Torres, a curriculum specialist who helped to create California’s 2017 English Learner Roadmap to help public schools welcome, understand, and educate the state’s ELs, says advocacy is key.

“With that, we (referring to her school district) were able to create multiple levels of professional development and also ways to institute how we want to provide systems that are representative of understanding what English Learners need,” she said.

Garcia-Torres drew large cheers from the audience when she reaffirmed that there is nothing inherently wrong with the so-called code-switching of mixing two languages, calling it a “highly linguistic skill and ability” because it follows clear grammatical patterns in both languages.

Language Gentrification

Madrigal noted that it was also important to keep public enthusiasm for multilingualism focused on the youth who most need the support. A few years ago, she helped build out a bilingual program in a school in Huntington Beach and noted how academic performance improved as students, the majority of whom spoke Spanish as a first language, were able to understand the instructions.

But as that school’s rating improved, the school’s diversity fell away. Madrigal said many affluent, monolingual families began enrolling their children in such great numbers that soon the Spanish speaking Latino youth who most needed the dual-language supports weren’t as able to get access. As the school’s assets were recognized for benefiting affluent monolingual families, so too did the housing market.

“What I realized as a principal is that what became a place for our students or our English Learners to continue the development of their native language became less of an option for them,” Madrigal said. Suddenly they couldn’t afford to live in the vicinity and transportation became more costly and time consuming.

“I am a big advocate for having dual immersion programs, but you have to have a check and balance system,” she said, noting that these scenarios highlight the importance of building dual language immersion programs all across a school district to make sure current English Learners have access to dual language programs that have been shown to benefit both monolingual and multilingual students.

How the Pandemic Exacerbated the Challenges ELs Face

At the onset of the pandemic, education equity advocates were worried about the struggles ELs have in learning a language over the Internet, which can lack context or make students uncomfortable. They also worried about the disproportionate numbers of EL students who might be dealing with familial stressors such as living in overcrowded homes where quarantining was all but impossible, losing family members, and dealing with the economic impact of lost wages.

Then came another hit: the great resignation, in which many pandemic-fatigued workers began leaving their jobs in all sorts of fields, often to try another more lucrative vocation. Training, recruiting, and retaining qualified teachers was hard enough in the non-pandemic era, and now teachers were feeling the strain of trying to teach online or in hybrid models, avoiding sickness, and supporting students through a time of great emotional upheaval, all while making very little pay and dealing with inflation.

At the same time, Madrigal noted that the shift to more virtual communication was somewhat advantageous in helping parents become more engaged, because even busy ones could jump on a ZOOM call during a work break during the pandemic. But advocacy is also about changing parents’ mindset –reminding them that educators are there for them.

“When parents come to me with a concern, they’ll often say something like ‘I don’t want to bother anyone. I don’t want to upset anyone. I don’t want to get anyone in trouble,’” she explained. “I have to remind them ‘we are her to serve you.’”

Setting a More Robust EL Agenda

From a policy perspective, the panelists were aligned with UnidosUS’s own education policy team, which is advocating for $2 billion in federal support for ELs, an amount double what the House Appropriations Committee is currently proposing. Funding like that could help to recruit, train, and retain dedicated teachers.

Tiongco said that during his first year of teaching more than two decades ago, he once sat at a table with a teacher who mentioned she would soon get to “leave the hood” and move on to a more white, affluent, suburban school because she had “done her time.”

Even though he understood her desire to teach in a less challenging environment, he never got over the offense it caused him to hear his colleague think of ELs and other underserved youth as anything less than amazing students with whom educators had an amazing opportunity to do what teachers are supposed to do best — prepare the next generation.

“We’ve gotta change that mindset that teaching in our communities of color or Latinx communities is teaching in the hood,” he said. “This is teaching a culturally rich, amazing, beautiful community.”

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