Despite having the highest density of English language learners (ELLs) in the country, Nevada, until recently, was one of only eight states that did not fund ELL education. In June, Senate Bill 504 passed, and for the first time in Nevada’s history, funding was allocated specifically for ELLs. This bill represents a huge step forward for the state; the infusion of long-awaited funding specifically for improving ELL education promises to invigorate state efforts to provide a high quality education for all students. It is a big win for Nevada, but to be effective in improving the educational outcomes and opportunities for ELL students, the state will require a strategy that integrates the core components of cultural competency and family engagement.
Home to the vast majority of the state’s ELL population (77 percent), Clark County School District (CCSD) – which includes the city of Las Vegas – received more than three-quarters of the $50 million allocated by Bill 504. The $39.4 million will be directed to fourteen struggling CCSD elementary schools (out of 217 total), designated as “Zoom Schools,” with the highest proportions of ELLs. This new injection of funds means that ELL funding will finally be on par with what other districts around the country with similar demographics provide for ELL students.
Zoom Schools will receive additional resources, including pre-K programs, expanded full-day kindergarten with smaller class sizes, summer school offerings to get students back on track, and Zoom School reading skills centers to provide students with support in attaining key reading skills. They will also receive additional supplies, textbooks, and technology (e.g., tablet computers, headsets and laptop computers). The expectation is that ELL students, many of whom enter kindergarten not speaking English, will acquire academic English so that they can access academic content more readily. The ultimate goal is that every child graduates from high school and has the opportunity to go on to college.
ELL education in CCSD is led by Lucy Keaton, the county’s first assistant superintendent for English language learner education and an experienced school leader with involvement in turning around a school serving a high proportion of ELL students. In a recent interview in AISR’s Voices in Urban Education, Keaton shared CCSD’s strategic plan for ELL education – a plan that includes the core components of cultural competency and family engagement and has the potential to be a model for Nevada as a whole and for districts and states across the nation.
In her previous role as a school principal at a low-performing school with a high proportion of ELL students, Keaton concentrated on teachers’ cultural competency, spending considerable time addressing biases relating to ELLs and focusing on the immense potential among ELL students. Researchers have found that it is not enough to merely address teachers’ expectations or attitudes, but that individuals with excellent multicultural and culturally responsive skills must populate the teaching profession. Lessons must be rooted within the diverse experiences of students – when they are, the classroom experience is more meaningful and relevant to students, and learning occurs more easily and thoroughly (Carter 2013). This type of culturally competent teaching can bridge different ways of knowing and engages all students in demonstrating the knowledge and skills they use to navigate their everyday lives (Kozleski n.d.).
Several case studies and correlational analyses show how culturally responsive teaching practices impact achievement and other indicators of school success for diverse groups of students (Klump & McNeir 2005). For example, Native American students who were taught science using culturally relevant materials showed significantly higher achievement, as well as more positive attitudes towards science, than did comparable students who were taught without the culturally relevant materials (Matthews & Smith 1994).
The importance of family engagement as a key strategy for improving school outcomes is well documented (Henderson & Mapp 2002). Researchers have found a positive relationship between strong home-school partnerships and better academic outcomes. Moreover, families with strong engagement with schools are able to arm themselves with information about opportunities for students, becoming better advocates for their children. They also benefit by becoming more likely to look for additional opportunities to be involved in their schools’ decision-making and leadership roles (Fusaro n.d.).
In her role as principal, Keaton worked to engage families in the school community. She and her colleagues concentrated on making the school a welcome and safe environment. They emphasized that they were committed to educating all children and that they valued families as a key part of the process. They held meaningful events at the school to bring parents into the building (e.g., literacy and math evenings, science fairs) and taught parents strategies to use at home to support student learning. Teachers and school leaders building rapport with parents enabled parents to take an active role in their children’s education.
One of Keaton’s top priorities in her new district role is to extend these family engagement strategies to more schools. She also plans to hold summer camps for ELL students and families, equipping them with tools and expectations for student achievement and acquainting them with the school system. Currently, the plan is to have several community events at the Zoom Schools to help engage parents in their children's education.
The Challenge of Time
The fourteen Zoom Schools are expected to show rapid growth in test scores for their lowest performing ELL students within just two years. Lawmakers will then decide whether to continue the ELL funding for years to come. However, research shows that it takes four to seven years for ELLs to learn enough English to access academic content. And while incorporating effective cultural competence and family engagement components is crucial to the success of any initiative geared towards ELLs, these elements cannot be integrated overnight. Realistically, significant improvement in the academic performance of Clark County ELLs will take time, certainly more than two years. Although Senate Bill 504 is a big win for ELLs in CCSD, the district’s strategy should involve adequate time, evidence-based programs and practices, and a more permanent solution that is not tied to the legislative process. Only then will CCSD have the potential to become a nationwide model for high-quality ELL education.
Carter, P. L. 2013. “Student and School Cultures and the Opportunity Gap: Paying Attention to Academic Engagement and Achievement.” In Closing the Opportunity Gap: What America Must Do to Give Every Child an Even Chance, edited by K.G. Welner and P.L. Carter. New York: Oxford University Press.
Fusaro, M. “Popping the Question: How Can Schools Engage Families in Education?” Usable Knowledge, Harvard Graduate School of Education.
Henderson, A., and K. Mapp. 2002. A New Wave of Evidence: The Impact of School, Family and Community Connections on Student Achievement. Austin, TX: Southwest Educational Development Library.
Klump, J., and G. McNeir. 2005. Culturally Responsive Practices for Student Success: Regional Sampler. Portland, OR: Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory.
Kozleski, E. n.d. Culturally Responsive Teaching Matters! Tempe, AZ: Equity Alliance.
Matthews, C. E., and W. S. Smith. 1994. “Native American Related Materials in Elementary Science Instruction,” Journal of Research in Science Teaching 31, no. 4:363–380.