Achieving Success with ELLs

Kathleen Leos

Kathleen Leos is the President and CEO of The Global Institute for Language and Literacy Development, LLC, (GILD). Prior to founding GILD, Ms. Leos served a six-year (2002-2007) presidential appointment as the Assistant Deputy Secretary & Director of the Office of English Language Acquisition in the U.S. Department of Education (OELA).

In this exclusive interview with Colorín Colorado, Ms. Leos describes how the issue of educating English language learners started as something personal in her local PTA and then eventually became the central issue in her long and distinguished career in the ELL field.

How did you come to be such a powerful voice for English language learners?

The beauty of this particular position for me is that I came to this professional life personally. I met and married a man from Mexico, have five children whose first language was not English, lived in the mountains of Mexico with my family — a world that's 75 years behind the times — and I have a really good understanding of how families cross the border to pursue their dreams.

What I really understand is the challenge for families where parents don't understand the language, may only have a third-grade education, and are working two or three jobs.

But you're from New York. What you're describing seems a long way from your roots.

Not really. I'm from a working class family, an Irish Catholic family with six kids, and it was in those two experiences that these worlds came together. There were not class or religion differences, and family expectations were very similar.

But there were differences, too.

Yes. Raising my children bilingually and biculturally, I knew they would live in two worlds.

How did mingling those worlds become a professional endeavor?

I got involved from a professional and political standpoint by starting to develop policy from my perspective and trying to change educational standards to meet the needs of non-English speaking students.

How did you do that?

My involvement began very simply. Some of the parents in my children's school in Dallas didn't understand the school paperwork, and I started helping with that.

We had a thousand kids in this school, the poorest school in the district. The area had become a resettlement area with a very high immigrant population. A lot of our families were from Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, and Mexico. My family lived right in the thick of that. Then I became involved with the PTA.

What did you do with the PTA?

I was in my kitchen one day, flipping tortillas just like anyone else, when the principal of the school called and said the PTA president had quit and asked me if I would take it on.

I basically had five kids dripping off my arm, and I only speak Spanish and English, but I said okay. I had to go get other translators for the Vietnamese, Cambodian, and Laotian families.

All the talk in the PTA was about involuntary busing, which was a big issue in Dallas back then. Here we were in a falling-down inner city school, but parents came to the PTA meeting and packed in wall to wall. Some of them were there barefoot, but that's how important their children's education was to them.

The first meeting was two-and-a-half hours long. I said, "I've been asked to fill this role as PTA president, but I want to know what you want us to do." They all said, "We don't want our children bused to other schools."

I was so naïve. Here I was, with hair down to my waist, holding babies on my lap, and I said, "That's easy. We'll just build new schools." I had no idea.

But you got it done. There were two new schools built in your neighborhood.

Yes. But we had to go to federal court to get the judge to hear us. We got approval from the court, which told the superintendent to include our request in the next school facility bond.

By the time the first school opened, I was a school board trustee. But we had to keep pushing and pushing. We were in a very poor, inner-city school district that was always looking for ways to cut costs.

You also started a literacy program. How did that fit in with your other projects?

I worked with several programs, including a project for visually impaired children and medically fragile children from babies up through second grade, and other community health programs for inner-city kids.

Through some of this work, we did a needs assessment and sent out forms in seven different languages. We asked about parents' top priorities over five years' time.

Schools were number one. But part of that was that they wanted to learn English. They wanted to be able to help their kids with homework.

Eventually, this became a nonprofit, Basic English Inc., which served a thousand families a week. There was a child-care component that not only took care of the children, but also started literacy instruction. We also had an adult component that taught English and literacy and literature. It was based on academics instead of life skills. It wasn't about how to fill out an apartment application - it was based on the methodology of teaching academics so they could reinforce that with their kids.

How did all these experiences play into organizing the upcoming OELA summit?

One of the most important aspects of the summit is the fact that any individual who attends will understand how to take language acquisition and content knowledge and be able to teach any student more effectively.

This is based on research data and valid assessments; we want to show them how you most effectively teach different populations. Whether the students were born here, or come into the schools in pre-K, or they come in high school, how do you fold language acquisition into content teaching?

So you are reaching beyond the ELL teachers?

Yes, exactly. We're targeting monolingual teachers who might have 35 students who speak eight different languages. How do you teach algebra to that class?

From your perspective, what are the biggest issues facing these teachers?

One top issue, from the state administrators down to classroom teachers, is that states have taken three years to develop standards between language acquisition and content areas. But most have barely started developing a curriculum that's aligned to both sets of standards, so there's a big disconnect.

That's one of the main goals of the summit, to help administrators, principals, and teachers understand that regular content teachers are not only responsible for content knowledge, but also for language acquisition. This is especially challenging for middle and high school teachers.

For instance, when you look at high school expectations, it's almost a given that the students have enough language knowledge to understand the content of the coursework. The higher the coursework, the higher the demand is on a teacher, especially an advanced placement (AP) teacher, to make language acquisition a part of the curriculum.

ELLs are not in those AP classrooms, and language is the barrier that keeps them out.

How will content teachers have time to incorporate that work and still cover all the content?

The kind of teaching strategies that we are talking about benefit all the students, not just the ELLs. The teaching strategies aren't so different; it's just a different emphasis. But because of the higher-level coursework, high schools really have to rethink how they're teaching.

What do you think is the main thing people don't understand about ELLs?

I think one of the things that's important to understand is that 80 percent of ELLs are born in this country. You hear over and over again that ELLs are immigrants, but 80 percent of them are second- or even third-generation.

When you look at the 20 percent who are foreign-born, 52 percent of that group started here in kindergarten or first grade, so we're really talking about 8 to 10 percent of students who come from other countries and don't start out in school here.

Why is that significant?

Dispelling that initial myth is important because, as we've gone around the country talking about applying language standards, we keep hearing "Our school is not going to make AYP because of our ELLs."

But we did an analysis of all the schools in the country that did not make AYP, and only 4 percent were because of their ELLs.

I'm not diminishing the perception that ELLs' needs are not being met. We hear teachers say, "I don't have the tools I need to be effective for students." That's what the summit addresses — giving teachers the tools they need to be effective.

What else do you want educators to take away from the summit?

I think there are a lot of success stories that teachers can take something from. Our role is to take what seems to be complicated policy and make it very practical and put those practical strategies to work in the classroom. That's what we've spent five years doing.

We know how committed and dedicated the teachers are, and we know that the teacher is the linchpin of student success. We know that success is going to happen. We just want to make this implementation process as uncomplicated as possible.

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