Action (Still) Needed to Serve Oakland’s English Language Learners and How “Dreamers” Can Help

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Almost 25 years ago as a bright-eyed and bushy- tailed law student I worked on the so- called “Zambrano case”, where OUSD conceded that they were not adequately serving English Language Learners (ELLs) and promised to do better.  The central issue raised was the lack of sufficient bilingual staff in Oakland and the District’s structural inability to serve its students. Mind you, by the time I had reached the small part of the case I worked on it was nearly a decade old, and the District seemed more interested in fighting than complying, ironically crying broke, while paying through the nose for lawyers, and eventually paying our attorney fees too.  But lawyers came before bilingual services.

In some ways it’s déjà vu all over again in 2015 when it comes to the services that ELLs are getting, though at least we are beyond the denial stage.  The latest troubling reports on the achievement and chances of ELLs (or general lack thereof) in Oakland, The Review of Services for English-Language Learners in the Oakland Unified School District, which can be found here.  The short of it is that the District does not have the human resources or sustained training to meet ELL student and family needs, with discouraging end results.   It seems that for some, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Roughly a third of students in Oakland are ELLS, less than half of them can expect to graduate from high school in four years, and less than a third will have successfully taken the classes to even apply to the UC or CSU system, the A-G course requirements, while only 20% do matriculate to college.  In the modern economy, prospects are dim for these students.

The good news is that the District is being transparent and has some plans, which is a huge step forward from my lawyering days.  The bad news is that unless we address some of the underlying issues, a new set of policies, and some new isolated offerings of professional development are unlikely to bring the real changes that we need.  Oakland, except for the Native community, is composed of newcomers, and there is no reason to think that that trend will decrease.  Whether we came from the Great Migration, in an effort to escape Jim Crow, the more recent Northern ones across the Southern border, across the seas, or one of a thousand other journeys that ended in Oakland, we are the diaspora, and OUSD must better anticipate needs and serve our students and families.

The Problems

First, there is huge mismatch between the current staff at the District and the cultural and linguistic needs of families, both instructionally and in the front offices.  We do not have enough bilingual teachers, and we can’t keep those that we do have, which is mix of uncompetitive compensation and probably also some working conditions. We need staff that speak the language, understand the culture, and can protect, support and engage these students.

Some lowlights from the report on ELL students:

  • Some students have to rely relying on Google Translate in class
  • High rates of bullying: 90% of newcomers in one school said they were bullied, and many others reported remaining silent to avoid being teased
  • An overwhelming disengagement from academic work and discourse. In observations, 90% of elementary and 86% of secondary students either did not read during class, or read with no clear purpose or scaffolding.

Second, there is a nonsensical mismatch between student needs and the programs that OUSD offers.  I need to quote this to make the point.

“One powerful finding is that bilingual education is non-existent at the secondary level in OUSD; none of the secondary schools surveyed had bilingual programs.  Outside of ‘Spanish for Spanish speakers’ courses, there are no opportunities for students to formally study academic content in a language other than English.”  A variety of such programs exist in San Francisco and I would expect in most major districts.  Just think about it: what kind of education is a 9th grade newcomer going to receive in Oakland, when she doesn’t speak the language, has only a ‘Spanish for Spanish speakers’ course, and has no formal scaffolding to learn the language or access to the formal academic program.  Now imagine she speaks Arabic, or one of the dozens of less prevalent languages.  What are her chances?

Unfortunately, we know what her chances are: in secondary schools, 93% of ELLs are multiple years behind in reading, and they only have about a 10% chance of being reclassified as English proficient.  I haven’t taken math in a while, but those are pretty terrible odds.  And again, if you don’t graduate with career skills and/or attend college, you will have a tough and contingent life, there probably is not a trust fund waiting for you, just a trail of low-paying jobs where you exist at the mercy of a manager, replaceable and exploitable.


But recognizing the problem is the first stage of recovery.  And indeed there are solutions.  Oakland has some exemplary programs: Urban Promise Academy (55.9%) and LIFE Academy (33.6%) are successfully working to reclassify ELLs.  And while schools are not widgets, where we can just recreate the successes next door, there have to be effective practices there that can be drawn from and expanded.  Programmatically we need to look at how other districts explicitly link academic content with English language development, and engage newcomers in rigorous academic programming, at all levels.   It is inexcusable that no such programs currently exist at the secondary level in Oakland.

The staffing issue is more complicated and depends on a host of outside factors, mostly the competitiveness of Oakland as a long term, stable employment choice for school staff.  Currently Oakland’s salaries are not regionally competitive, the new contract should help with that, but realistically, Oakland will struggle if it is competing on compensation alone.   We need to get creative if we are going to hire, train, develop, and retain the workforce we need, that matches students linguistically and culturally.  How can we do this?  Make Oakland Dreamer Town USA.

The so called “Dreamers” are those 65,000 yearly undocumented high school graduates, many of them come from Oakland and California, they have the linguistic skills and cultural competencies needed for our kids, and many of them, despite being qualified, motivated, and competent are denied educational opportunities, and jobs.   Let’s lay out the welcome mat for them here, assuring opportunities in higher education with local colleges, supporting them with housing options, and hiring and training them to work in our schools, at all levels.  While many communities are closing doors, we need to create more pathways and open existing ones wide.

We also need to really match families with programs that meet their needs, not every school will have a counselor that speaks Tagolog, (and indeed one secondary school did not even have a Spanish speaking counselor), but at enrollment parents should understand their options and be steered toward programs that have linguistically and culturally competent staff.  And parents should be given the range of options for their children in terms of the type of language development support they receive, alongside some rough explanations of how different models may work (dual immersion versus sheltered immersion, etc.), or why.  Oakland will never be able to represent every language in every school, but we can do significantly better expanding options and deliberately matching families to programs and staff.

Oakland, we have to do better.  There is some low hanging fruit here in better matching parents, and providing some bilingual secondary programs, but addressing the larger workforce and training issues will require creativity, vision, persistence, and ultimately a substantial commitment to students who for too long have been neglected and left behind.  Unlike 20 years ago, looking at these issues, I don’t see bad guys at OUSD obstructing, rather it is the bureaucratic consistency and incrementalism, but unfortunately the results are the same.  If we don’t want to be here reading the same report again 20 years from now, we need revolutionary change, which starts with new ideas, and requires a demonstrated commitment to meeting the needs of ALL students, a commitment that has earned a lot of lip service but produced precious few student services over the years.



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