Two years ago, the federal government found fault with English learning instruction in APS. Then a pandemic happened.
Two years ago, the US Department of Justice reached a settlement with Arlington Public Schools after a federal investigation found “several compliance issues” with the Equal Educational Opportunities Act of 1974. The settlement outlined measures that APS would be required to take through July 2022 to improve how it teaches students who are English learners.
Since the 2019 settlement, a global pandemic has significantly complicated how we address the needs of students who are English learners. Beyond academics, many of these students and their families have been grappling with food insecurity, job loss, inability to make rent and mortgage payments, COVID-related illnesses and deaths, and more. In Arlington as in other communities, BIPOC and lower-income families have been hardest hit by the virus.
Mindful of both the longstanding issues (as described in the 2019 DOJ settlement and other studies) and immediate critical needs, I’ve been reviewing the end-of-year reports from two APS citizen advisory groups: the Superintendent’s Advisory Council on Immigrant and Refugee Student Concerns (SACIRSC) and the Advisory Committee on English Learners (ACEL), which is part of the larger Advisory Council on Teaching and Learning that reports to the School Board.
Here are some of my takeaways from these reports, looking to answer the questions “How well is APS meeting its obligations to students who are English learners?” And “How can APS engage, support, and benefit from the experiences and perspectives of immigrant and refugee families and students?” (Note: I understand that “Immigrant and Refugee” and “English Learner” are not synonymous. For this piece, I am focusing on students and families that are both English learners and newcomers to the US.)
1. The need for data, reporting and accountability: Have we improved teaching and learning for students who are English learners? Independent researchers presented detailed findings in a 2019 English Learner program evaluation, and the DOJ identified 38 specific obligations in its settlement with APS. Currently, there’s no public reporting on whether and to what extent we’re gaining ground. This would be something I’d hope to see in an equity dashboard that APS should share transparently with the community in multiple languages.
2. The importance of teachers’ professional learning and culturally relevant curriculum. In its end-of-year report ACEL reminds us that all teachers need sustained professional learning that equips them to work with students who are English learners. At the time of the 2019 EL program evaluation, professional development for “general education” teachers on English language learning was optional, and those who participated indicated a low level of satisfaction with the training. The DOJ settlement required 30 hours of training over three years for core content teachers plus training for principals.
The researchers who visited APS classrooms in the 2018-19 school year also found that 90% of the middle and high school lessons they observed did not demonstrate academic rigor. Among parents of students who are English learners, only 59% responded favorably in the APS Your Voice Matters survey that their children’s teachers have sufficiently high expectations—the lowest result of any student subgroup. Low expectations and a lack of academic rigor have contributed to high rates of absenteeism and a dropout rate of 43% in 2019 for students who are beginning or intermediate-level English learners (WIDA levels 1-3). The researchers who spent time in APS classrooms wrote that students who are English learners need to be “motivated by lessons that are interesting, engaging, and applicable to school and other aspects of their lives.”
It’s good education practice: students need to be able to relate to and see themselves in the school curriculum. Leaders of the SACIRSC echoed this in a February 2021 letter to the Virginia Advisory Committee on Culturally Relevant and Inclusive Education Practices. They urge state policymakers to address “the history of a broad range of immigrants of color, in addition to enslaved and freed African-Americans, Indigenous Peoples, and Whites.”
3. The importance of Bilingual Family Liaisons: Bilingual Family Liaisons are APS staff members who connect bicultural families and school staff, providing interpretation, translation and other types of support. In its report, ACEL calls Bilingual Family Liaisons “one of the strongest connections between many EL families and their school community” and recommends that these staff members receive more training and collaboration time. Because there is only one Bilingual Family Liaison at a given school, it’s currently challenging for them to identify shared needs and develop shared resources. Additionally, Bilingual Family Liaisons need APS-issued iPads and cell phones so they can help families access Parent VUE, Canvas, and other instructional platforms. The SACIRSC recommends hiring an Amharic-speaking Bilingual Family Liaison.
4. The importance of pro-active and user-friendly communication: APS uses a commercial online service called ParentVUE as its way to share student information with families. The SACIRSC has urged APS to “redouble its efforts to ensure all families know how to access and use ParentVUE and explore what other tools would be more effective.” On Monday, APS sent out a systemwide notice that ParentVUE has been updated and the link to access it will change; the old URL will lead to an error message, further complicating what is already a challenging system for many (including me sometimes!) to navigate.
The SACIRSC took the initiative to produce a weekly “What You Need to Know” newsletter last school year in Spanish and English in a format that worked well for WhatsApp users; this group is also advocating for APS to engage via WhatsApp in other major languages.
The SACIRSC also recommends the following: “pro-active check-ins to ensure students and their families know about resources and are connected to them as needed. APS should not rely on push-out messaging and assume families’ awareness or understanding.” What could a pro-active check-in look like? Last year many school districts used calls and home visits to check in on students who weren’t showing up for distance learning, and many school district leaders have themselves been going door-to-door over the summer to answer parents’ questions about school safety and help set up vaccinations. When students return to school, pro-active check-ins could include trauma and mental health screenings for all students and regular, protected time for students and families to check in with counselors and advisors.
5. The importance of community collaboration to address basic needs: We need coordinated and effective approaches to hunger, housing, child care, health care, connectivity and more. Fundamentally, this requires collaborative effort across various County agencies, APS departments, and community organizations. Our pandemic response to date provides a valuable case study to examine: How well did we (collectively) do in making sure everyone had food? Were we able to provide adequate child care for essential workers? If not, why not? What would we do differently going forward? In the future, how could we use community facilities and resources more creatively and flexibly?
I want to recognize the hard work of the Superintendent’s Advisory Council on Immigrant and Refugee Student Concerns here—its end-of-year summary of the Council’s activities includes the following:
Council members: thank you.
I’ve been making the case during the campaign that we need to do more to leverage the incredible knowledge, skills and commitment of Arlington’s citizen volunteers. I offer as one proof point these end-of-year reports that describe the activities and insights of our APS citizen advisory groups; another testimonial comes from Kenmore Principal David McBride, who shared the following words with the SACIRSC.
“When I reflect on how we succeeded in reopening schools and getting back on track, I can’t help but acknowledge the tremendous community support that the schools benefit from—even during this contentious year. Things could have been so much worse. Some deride “the Arlington way” as too cumbersome and taking too long—but remember the core to this concept is community voice, engagement and buy in. Think about all the beneficial actions that were taken because of ongoing dialogue among groups such as the IRC and the County. This is the key to Arlington’s success. And the great thing about this committee [SACIRSC] is that it gives voice to those that don’t always know how to navigate the system. In the end, the advocacy benefits everyone, because a healthier, smarter, stronger and more connected community makes it a better place to live for all.”