Did you know that 1 out of 5 California students doesn’t speak English at home? English learners have a right to a great education, but right now too many aren’t getting the support they need. Different school districts often have very different policies and programs for serving them.

Here’s what parents of English learners need to know.

What does it mean that my child is an English Learner?
If a student does not yet speak and understand English at a level where they can fully participate in regular instruction taught in English, they should be classified as an English learner (EL). California law requires that school districts provide English learners with additional services to help them gain fluency in English while moving forward with everything else they need to learn.

It’s important to realize that English proficiency isn’t something that should need to happen before students can access all the other content—science, literature, math, history, art, and all the rest—that their school provides. By law, California districts may not allow students to fall behind—to obtain “irreparable academic deficits”—as a result of not yet knowing English.


SchoolHow does my district know who is an English Learner?
When a student enrolls in a new school, parents fill out a survey, the Home Language Survey or HLS, that asks what language the student speaks at home. Federal and state laws require that school districts then test the English ability of students whose home language is not English. In California, this is done with the California English Language Development Test or CELDT. So the Home Language Survey identifies likely English learners, these students take the CELDT and, if their scores indicate that they are not yet proficient enough in English, they are classified as an English learner. This is what entitles the student to extra support.

OK, then what’s reclassification?
We’ve just described the process by which students are classified as English learners. But English learner status should be temporary: Reclassification means that the student has gained command of English and is no longer categorized as an English learner in need of extra support.

How does the district decide if a student should be reclassified?
The state of California requires that every school district decide whether to reclassify students based on four criteria:

  1. Results from the CELDT, which all English Learners re-take every year
  2. A test of “basic skills,” usually as indicated by the general state test (currently the CAASPP).
  3. Teacher recommendations
  4. Parent opinion and consultation

Every district (or charter school) uses these four factors differently to make the decision. For instance, one district may have a minimum grade point average (this is considered a teacher recommendation), while another may not. Or districts may set different standards for the CAASPP score that a student must have before he is reclassified.

How long should it take?
The ideal timeline for a student will depend on when they began the program and their level of English proficiency when they started. You can expect the process to take somewhere between five and seven years. California considers students “long-term English learners” if they have been in the system for six years or more, are not making progress toward fluency, and are struggling academically. If a student is a long-term English learner, they are not getting the support they need from their school.

The really important question is whether your student is on track to graduate with the skills and experience he needs to succeed in college and beyond. His district needs to ensure that he is learning English at a reasonable pace but also that he has access to a strong education while doing so. Talk with your student’s school about how they will measure progress and their plan to support your child.

Do charter schools use the same criteria as school districts for reclassifying English Learners?
Like districts, charter schools have to use the four criteria we discussed but have some freedom to decide how they will apply them. So a charter school’s policies may differ from the local district and from other local charters.

How will my child’s EL status affect her classroom placement?
Most English learners will find themselves placed in mainstream classrooms—ones where they join non-ELs. During a small part of the day, they will receive separate instruction to support English language development. In other cases, English learners receive instruction in a separate classroom. This is known as Structured English Immersion (SEI). It is less common and should be restricted to the first years of English language instruction.

Finally, some students will find the themselves in bilingual or dual immersion programs. In bilingual programs, English learners receive academic instruction in their native language. So Spanish speakers may learn math in Spanish, for instance. In dual immersion, the same is true, with the additional facet that all students in the school are taught in two languages. We profiled one school that follows a bilingual model to great effect.

There is a lot of evidence that well implemented dual immersion or bilingual programs are very effective at supporting language acquisition. Learning to read and write in their native language can help students acquire those same skills in their second language (and vice versa). This said, there are plenty of monolingual schools out there that do a great job with English learners, too. There really are great programs of all types.

What should I do to support my child?
Stay informed. We hope that by understanding the basics of reclassification, as outlined here, you’ll be able to more effectively advocate for your child and communicate with their school. Be sure they are getting good instruction in English Language Development, and are getting special support to be sure they can understand and participate in the curriculum. Know if there are options for bilingual and dual language immersion programs that are designed to support your child to be able to speak, read and write in two languages.

We’ve pointed out some areas where you do have authority as a parent. For instance, if you want your child moved from SEI to a mainstream classroom where they won’t be getting special supports, you can request that. If you are interested in opportunities for your child to develop proficiency in English and another language and become bilingual, you can request that, too. Learn more and speak up for English Learners by participating in an English Learner Advisory Committee (ELAC). Every school, including charter schools, has a committee and every school district has a district-level committee with parents of English Learners from its schools.

The bottom line
Are they getting the help they need to become fully English proficient and to fully participate in a strong academic program? Are they getting an education that inspires and prepares them for the future?

Regardless of language ability, they are entitled to nothing less.

Resources to Learn More
“How Your English Learner Will Learn English” from the California Department of Education. (En Español)
“A wake up call to California educators and policymakers” around long-term English Learners. (En Español)
A general resource for parents of English learners. (En Español)
When the CELDT says they don’t speak English, but they do. (En Español)

* We want to thank Laurie Olsen at Sobrato Family Foundation and Laura Hill at Public Policy Institute of California for their insights and review.

1 “Developing ELL Programs: Lau v. Nichols,” Letters (Correspondence); Policy Guidance, (October 15, 2015), http://www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/ocr/ell/lau.html.
2 Laura HIll, “California’s English Learner Students” (Public Policy Institute of California, n.d.), http://www.ppic.org/main/publication_quick.asp?i=1031#fn-10. The term is elsewhere placed at six or more: Laurie Olsen, “Meeting the Unique Needs of Long-Term English Learners: A Guide for Educators” (National Education Association, March 2014), https://www.nea.org/assets/docs/15420_LongTermEngLangLearner_final_web_3-24-14.pdf.
3 Tara Williams Fortune, “What the Research Says About Immersion” (Center for Advanced Research on Language Acquisition, University of Minnesota), accessed April 8, 2016, http://carla.umn.edu/immersion/documents/ImmersionResearch_TaraFortune.html.Kathryn Lindholm-Leary and Ana Hernández, “Achievement and Language Proficiency of Latino Students in Dual Language Programmes: Native English Speakers, Fluent English/previous ELLs, and Current ELLs,” Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development 32, no. 6 (November 2011): 531–45, doi:10.1080/01434632.2011.611596.Elizabeth R. Howard, Julie Sugarman, and Donna Christian, “Trends in Two-Way Immersion Education. A Review of the Research.,” August 2003, http://eric.ed.gov/?id=ED483005.