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Investing in What Works: San Antonio’s Success With English Language Learners

If you listen closely to the  howling winds that pass for public discourse on education these days, you can sometimes pick out a theme or two. One of the persistent strains echoing through the turmoil goes something like this: we know what works and we have pockets of excellence where these best practices are in place, but we don’t know how to replicate them. We hear this a lot because it’s usually the case in our sprawling, decentralized public education system. Too often, educators’ extraordinary work never gets shared beyond the walls of their classroom, school or (at best) district. This is absolutely the situation as far as young English language learners (ELLs) are concerned. While schools in California, New York and Texas have been supporting these students’ development for decades, the number of ELLs at home grew by over 600 percent in South Carolina and 306 percent in Kentucky during the first decade of the century. These states are emblematic of a broader trend: multilingual students are now arriving in districts where they haven’t historically enrolled. This is an extraordinary, wonderful opportunity for a pluralistic country. A racially, ethnically and  linguistically diverse America is a better America in every way—including (and especially)  economically. So it’s critical that all American educators be prepared to support young ELLs’ linguistic and academic development. But how? In an effort to spotlight and share strong practices for these students, New America is publishing  three profiles of communities that are taking innovative approaches to how they serve these students. One covers San Antonio, Texas, a city whose long, multilingual history serves as a foundation for its recent reforms to better serve ELLs. There are 15 independent school districts either partly or entirely within the city, and the districts’ socioeconomic demographics vary considerably. For instance, just 4.8 percent of Alamo Heights ISD students were designated as ELLs in the 2013–14 school year, compared to 18.9 percent of Edgewood ISD students. Alamo Heights has fewer than 5,000 total students and boasts a per pupil tax base of more than $1 million dollars, while Northside ISD enrolls over 100,000 students with a per pupil tax base of approximately $350,000. These funding gaps translate into major differences in children’s educations: 18 percent of Alamo Heights students are enrolled in gifted and talented programs, which receive over 5 percent of the district’s considerable funding. In Edgewood, just 6 percent of students are enrolled in gifted and talented programs, which get just 0.2 percent of the district budget. This diffuse, decentralized system offers a wealth of experimentation with education policy and practice. What can educators and policymakers across the country learn from San Antonio?
  1. The variety of districts within San Antonio allows for some variance in policies related to how schools serve language learners. The area’s districts have different student populations with different strengths, and have launched different educational programs in response to those needs. Districts with high percentages of ELLs are moving their schools to dual immersion programs that help all students (ELLs or not) become fully fluent and literate in two languages.
  2. The city is investing heavily in high-quality early education. In 2012, voters approved a sales tax hike to establish a new citywide pre-K program. Then-mayor Julián Castro and other local leaders laid out a careful implementation plan that would build program access over eight years. The program, dubbed PreK4SA, will serve over 22,000 students in that time period. This is a particularly strong development for San Antonio’s many ELLs. Research suggests that public pre-K programs are especially beneficial for multilingual students. Of course, not all pre-K is of equal quality—programs that are designed and implemented carefully will get better results than those that aren’t. This is why it’s noteworthy that PreK4SA centers use developmentally-appropriate curricula and pay their teachers higher salaries than many area K–12 teachers (a rarity in pre-K programs). The program also provides ongoing coaching and support for teachers to ensure that their instructional quality continues improving over time. It’s also worth noting that PreK4SA offers a full-day pre-K program—which helps support families as it builds a strong early foundation for children. Schools can indeed help fight poverty. In addition to helping low-income and ELL students develop stronger skills, full-day public pre-K programs can save their families thousands of dollars in caregiving costs. Similar pre-K programs have also been found to increase parental participation in the labor market, which can improve family incomes and help offset the public costs of early education through additional tax revenues.
  3. San Antonio leaders are using the energy generated by PreK4SA to support better pre-K through third-grade early education programs across the area’s different districts. This is a major undertaking: alignment of educational governance institutions is a thoroughgoing American problem. From federal efforts to get states to cooperate, state efforts to set common expectations for districts, or districts trying to get schools to coordinate their feeder patterns and instructional efforts, American education reforms are often about trying to build disparate institutions into something like a system. In response to this challenge, San Antonio uses PreK4SA’s substantial professional development funding to connect child care workers to pre-K through third-grade teachers from a variety of formal and informal settings in districts across the city. Coaches even make themselves available to follow up with elementary school educators who participate in these professional development events. They are available to visit classrooms and continue offering support well beyond the sessions.
These three elements of San Antonio’s ELL reforms are only part of the city’s story. PreK4SA and the city’s Eastside Promise Neighborhood are incorporating so-called “ dual-generation” strategies to brighten low-income families’ economic futures while simultaneously supporting higher achievement for their children. And leaders in districts across the city are combining different federal, state and local funding streams to improve how they serve young ELLs’ needs. Our report covers these—and other—reforms so that the story of these strong new efforts doesn’t stay limited to San Antonio.
Conor P. Williams is the founding director of the New America’s Dual Language Learners National Work Group. He is a former first grade teacher.Parts of this column were adapted from Boomtown Kids: Harnessing Energy and Aligning Resources for Dual Language Learners in San Antonio, Texas.
Conor P. Williams is a fellow at The Century Foundation. Williams was previously the founding director of the New America’s Dual ...

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