Ramping Up Equity for Our English Learners
BY MICHELLE WISE/School Administrator, November 2019

Michelle Wise (left), assistant superintendent in California’s Romoland School District, visits with a teacher at Back to School Night.
Last spring, I asked the 8th-grade student seated next to me on the bus if he enjoyed the tour of University of California, Riverside. He responded that he did and planned to tell his father, an immigrant from Mexico and auto shop mechanic, that he intended to study engineering at the university and become a mechanical engineer.

When I learned this budding engineer had been reclassified as fluent in English proficiency from English learner status earlier in the year, I took personal pride. This was the focus of my work as assistant superintendent in the Romoland School District. This 8th grader now had the options to enroll in the higher-level high school courses he would need to gain admission to UC Riverside.

Romoland, situated 80 miles east of Los Angeles in a historically rural, agricultural region, serves 4,200 K-8 students, of whom 20 percent are English learners with Spanish as their primary language. Our attempts to improve the lot of English learners began five years ago when the district committed to raise the quality of its English learner instruction, direct services and access to advanced courses.

Culture Building
My work took place then on two fronts: creating a systemwide process for classifying English learners and educating staff in our schools about the why we were doing this work. I led teachers and principals in conversations about educational equity for all students, including those learning English. This was new ground.

The superintendent established equity as a priority when she formed a diversity task force that reviewed school district performance data and developed a multiyear plan for improving outcomes for all students. The plan included an invitation for all staff to visit the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles for facilitated conversations about inequality and bias.

For two years, cultural proficiency experts Delores Lindsey and Randall Lindsey facilitated the study of bias and inequity in the Romoland schools and hosted discussions involving staff cohorts.

Subsequently, the district offered an optional training class, Navigating Difference, to staff. Navigating Difference is cultural-competency professional development that helps individuals to effectively engage with people from diverse cultures and develop welcoming school environments.

Over the course of a year, teachers and administrators learned what the latest research had to say about policy and practice for educating English learners. They studied Laurie Olsen’s “Reparable Harm: Fulfilling the Unkept Promise of Educational Opportunity for California’s Long Term English Learners,” a report published by the advocacy group Californians Together. The study launched districtwide discussion about meeting the needs of English learners in Romoland to support more students to reclassify to fluent English proficient and reduce the number of long-term English learners.

During that year, I led a 12-member cohort, consisting of staff and parent members of the English learners advisory committee, which evaluated Romoland’s English learner master plan. They compared it with the professional research community’s recommendations for policy and practice. After a year of study, everyone agreed the district needed to craft a new plan if our English language learners were to be successful.

A Proficiency Focus
The new plan, completed in 2016, called for the implementation of vastly changed practices. Most significantly, our work became outcomes-focused with the goal of reclassifying all English learners to be English proficient before the end of 8th grade. Romoland’s plan documented strategies for increasing student language acquisition, achievement in all subjects, enrichment, and goal-setting.

We shed the old name, English learner master plan, which didn’t communicate a goal.

We intentionally renamed it the English learner reclassification system, which captures the heart of our work — a belief that all English learners will achieve proficiency by systematically supporting their success. Since the implementation of the new system practices, Romoland School District has significantly increased English learner reclassification rates and reduced the number of long-term English learners.

MICHELLE WISE is assistant superintendent of educational services in Romoland School District in Homeland, Calif. Twitter: @RSDMichelleWise