Today we continue with the Shawnee Mission Board of Education candidates’ responses to our general election questionnaire. Here’s question number four:
The English language learner population in Shawnee Mission has grown sharply since 2000, with around 10 percent of all students now qualifying for ELL status. Two years ago, the district eliminated the ELL center schools that had high concentrations of specially credentialed instructors, instead shifting to a model that attempts to facilitate ELL support in students’ home schools. Do you support the decision to close the ELL centers? Why or why not?
I do support the elimination of ELL centers, and believe we need to provide the resources necessary to certify as many educators as possible as ELL certified. Every child deserves to learn in “the least restrictive” environment. Non-discrimination requirements under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act mandates that children be integrated within their home schools and classes. There are roughly 80 different languages spoken within the SMSD, and the more teachers we have trained and prepared to address the needs of the children in their classrooms, the more fully they can be integrated, and the less likely the children needing the unique skills of certified educators to bridge language barriers will be seen as “other”. The reality is that the SMSD is a wonderfully diverse community, and all our students should have the opportunity to benefit from the diversity in their own backyards. It is by knowing and caring for people from all walks of lives in their own classrooms that children learn about the value of cultures outside of their own. The leaders, business owners, and employees of tomorrow will need to be able to relate to and understand various cultures and demographics. It would be a dereliction of duty for SMSD to not ensure every child learned an environment reflective of the world around them.
As I’ve reiterated throughout these questions, each major challenge the district faces emanates from a lack of transparency, communication, and stakeholder engagement and buy-in. Was this decision adequately vetted across the spectrum of curriculum and classroom experts? Was input requested from ELL teachers, and if so, was input provided? Good processes and input from stakeholders can root out unintended consequences before they become an issue. The process itself, as well as transparency and communication of the process seems to be at issue.
At first glance, closing the English Language Learner centers seems to put an undue burden on our principals, teachers, and support staff, not to mention students who may not have been ready to join the general education population.
ELL centers provided an immersion opportunity – long known to be the optimal means to acquire a new language, and at which time students met a critical mass of skills to succeed in the classroom, they could be introduced. However, with the elimination of the ELL centers, students are now thrust into the general population with a teacher who cannot be expected to have an ELL certification.
Open discussions across curriculum experts, teachers, staff, and parents were needed before implementation of such a massive change. At a minimum, the certified ELL teachers and the general education teachers should have had an opportunity for input as to how this decision would impact those students, the teachers, the classroom, and the staff at each school.
There are certainly positive aspects for ELL and native speakers to engage in the general education classroom. Cultural and diversity discussions are a benefit of a diverse district and enrich the educational experience of all students. But because of the lack of open discussions concerning the decision to shut down the ELL centers, it’s unclear the reasons behind the district’s actions and whether there is any merit to support the district’s decision.
SM West area race
As with many things in the field of education, there is a positive and negative effect in both decisions. A concentrated ELL school would allow those students to have access to credentialed teachers and to be with other students who share some of the same challenges of learning English while they learn academic subjects, too. The negative consequence of that model is that these children are not attending their neighborhood schools and interacting with other children from their own neighborhood. This means that their parents are also not interacting with other parents in the neighborhood. Since the role of education is to meet both the academic and social needs of children, I’m in favor of keeping the kids at their neighborhood schools as long as they are still receiving all the services they need.
Craig Denny (incumbent)
With the increase in our ELL population, I supported moving ELL programs from centers to neighborhood schools. Now, ELL students are in their neighborhood schools where they are more readily able to develop lasting relationships with students and teachers they see every day. Our excellent teachers provide quality instruction to all students and hold all students to the same high expectations. I believe diversity in our neighborhood schools is a positive aspect. In addition, parents of ELL students are now more involved in their neighborhood schools.
SM East area race
Yes, I support the district’s decision to provide English language learning services in students’ home schools. Our public education system continues to be the grounds on which American democracy refines our commitment to equality and equity, prioritizing the education of all children alongside one another regardless of language, ethnicity, disability, poverty or such.
About 3,300 (12%) Shawnee Mission students qualify for Title III instructional resource support as an English language learner. Roughly half of the district schools enroll more than 100 students who will graduate with the asset of bilingual conversational fluency and the opportunity to acquire bilingual reading and writing fluency through foreign language electives. Just last year, I was told by a rising SMSD 7th grader and native Spanish speaker that he had enrolled in French so that he would graduate tri-lingual!
We know from research and practice that English language learners perform better academically and achieve greater language proficiency when they have high-quality English language instruction to help these students with language acquisition and with meeting content standards. The district has recently hired ELL instructional coaches to help teachers meet these new instructional demands. Teachers and related building staff are routinely encouraged to earn ELL endorsement. Resource information is continually being shared.
If elected to the school board, I will explore options to strengthen support for teachers working to improve teaching and learning for English language learners and to reinforce recruitment efforts. I will work to explore district policies and practices in collaboration with relevant district partners to assist students and families through transitions in service delivery, like closing the ELL Centers. I will collaborate with our elected officials obligated to provide adequate resources to our schools and to share information with Shawnee Mission parents and patrons about the impact of potential education policy changes.
With the increase in ELL students in our district it is appropriate to offer ELL support in all our schools. The ELL students should go to school with their friends and neighbors. This means we need more credentialed instructors throughout the district. This presents challenges for the personnel department in hiring, and for the staff development department in training but keeping those kids in their home schools it the correct thing to do.
Tomorrow we’ll publish the candidates’ responses to the final item: If elected, you will have at least four years on the board of education to help steer the district forward. What do you hope you’ll be able to say about the district four years from now that you can’t say today?