Tag Archives: English Language Learners

Education Innovator Q&A: Jordan Meranus on Elevating English Learners to Thrive

With the 2021-22 school year well underway across the country, we have continued to reach out to education leaders and innovators on where we’ve been, where we’re going, and what their organizations are doing to weather the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and serve students. Visit these posts for a few recent back-to-school reflections. 

Jordan Meranus is an entrepreneur with deep roots in launching and leading high-impact education companies and nonprofits. Early in his career, he co-founded Jumpstart, a national nonprofit providing intensive early literacy, language, and social-emotional programming to children in under-resourced communities in dozens of cities across the country. He was also a partner at NewSchools Venture Fund where he assisted entrepreneurs in developing innovative organizations in public education. Currently, Meranus is co-founder and CEO of Ellevation Education, a web-based ed tech software platform that provides solutions to improve educational outcomes for multilingual learners by increasing educator effectiveness and scaffolding student learning. Bellwether’s Andy Rotherham was an advisor to the company. 

I caught up with Meranus in a wide-ranging conversation focused on English Learners (ELs), how school systems and teachers can be better equipped to serve them, and how language matters. 

Yoshira Cardenas Licea:
I’m curious about what Ellevation Education does, the WHY behind your everyday work, and how it has evolved since its founding. Can you tell me a little bit about the organization? 

Jordan Meranus:
Ellevation Education is a mission-driven software company exclusively focused on multilingual learners and the educators who serve them. My co-founder (Teddy Rice) and I had been supporting and investing in education organizations and companies focused on underserved populations and struggling students for years. We’d spent significant time asking educators across the country about their most acute challenges. And we routinely heard that they were struggling to meet the needs of ELs in increasingly linguistically diverse classrooms. We quickly learned that ELs were the fastest growing population of students in the U.S., with an achievement gap wider than race and income at the time. We also quickly learned that school leaders and teachers were in dire need of resources to better serve EL students.

A decade ago, we started Ellevation Education to address this problem at scale. Our work ensures that educators have the tools to meet the needs of ELs and multilingual learners. Initially, we focused on school administrators, but have since grown to directly serve classroom teachers and EL students. 

YCL:
What does that work look like in practice in a classroom setting?

JM:
Today, we have about 150 Ellevation team members serving over 1,100 school districts in nearly every state in the country. Our work initially focused on administrators, with early products centered on data, workflows, and the challenges that pull educators away from instructional preparation and time for intervention. We soon realized, though, that to truly address EL needs, we had to expand to serve teachers and students. So we launched Ellevation Strategies to help classroom teachers understand the strengths and needs of their EL students and engage them in rigorous content. More recently, we launched Ellevation Math to help EL students develop the vocabulary and academic language needed to access content and actively engage in classroom instruction.

For example, let’s say you’re an eighth grade math teacher planning a lesson on parabolas. If you have EL students, it’s highly likely that they may not fully grasp some of the language and vocabulary that you’ll use in your lesson (e.g., vertex, slope, symmetry). How might that impact their experience in your classroom? Ellevation Math provides short lessons to teach students that vocabulary so that they’ll be able to participate and complete the rigorous standards-based work.

YCL:
What do you identify today as the biggest challenge facing ELs?

JM:
You can’t boil it down to ONE challenge, it’s too multifaceted. 

First, I think it’s important to realize that ELs have to do double the work. It’s an oft-used phrase but ELs have to learn content and language — all while navigating the social and cultural world in their schools and communities. Put yourself in their shoes, it’s a lot to ask of K-12 students. 

Next, layer in the fact that many families of EL children may lack a deep understanding of education in the U.S., especially now navigating complicated choices around schooling amid the pandemic. 

Mix in challenges with inadequate teacher training for educators — who increasingly have to be a teacher of both language and content — and there are enormously unmet professional development needs. Recent research that we’re seeing shows that teachers are increasingly worried about whether they and their schools are effectively meeting EL needs. Something like 64% of teachers don’t feel they’re getting enough PD to accomplish this.

This mix of EL student challenges and teacher training constraints adds up to a very challenging environment for 5+ million EL students in U.S. schools. 

YCL:
As a former teacher in rural south Texas with a high EL student population, I can’t imagine teaching in this context. What does the average person not appreciate about ELs?

JM:
I love the question, and it’s something I think about a lot. Either because of how the press covers this student population or test scores, most people approach this question thinking about deficits and not about the assets EL students bring to the classroom: 

  • ELs are well on their way to being multilingual, which the majority of native-born Americans won’t be. Participating in immersive language programs is something a lot of parents clamor for.
  • ELs demonstrate perseverance and grit on a daily basis, including many whose families endured obstacles and trauma to get to this country.
  • Most people don’t fully appreciate that being an EL is a moment in time. With the right supports, schooling, interventions, and trained teachers, ELs are on a path to being proficient and achieving outcomes as strong or often stronger than their non-EL peers.

Language is important. We had a recent guest on our Highest Aspirations podcast who’s started using the language of the “emergent bilingual.” It’s asset based, and focuses on where EL students are heading. Compare that to the standard “limited English proficient” language that’s so deficit based. These kinds of changes matter and I hope more and more that we’ll start to see a powerful shift in language around ELs.

YCL:
We think a lot about school culture at Bellwether in our work with educators and clients. What do you think are key steps more schools should take to create an inclusive school culture for ELs?

JM:
It’s critical to recognize and use the asset-based mindset we were just discussing. Community and family engagement are also critical levers to learn what assets and challenges families and EL students bring, and to welcome them and better serve them in a school setting. We also have to create language-rich environments: EL students work best when engaging with teachers and peers and in project-based learning with a lot of opportunities to practice. Teacher preparation is also a huge piece of a good school culture for ELs so that those welcoming and engaging classrooms are commonplace within a school. I also think students need to be and feel seen. As a society, we need to do much more to preserve and showcase students’ home languages and cultures.

YCL:
We’ve been through a lot since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. What are you most worried about?

JM:
As EL students achieve proficiency, they’re reclassified. If this happens by the eighth grade, ELs tend to achieve on par with or above their non-EL peers. I worry about those ELs who don’t get reclassified before eighth grade or high school. Data show that students who are not reclassified by this time are much more likely to fall further behind, be less engaged, and even drop out.

Prior to the pandemic, there was increasing evidence that the number of long-term ELs, or those that do not get reclassified, was on the rise. I’m concerned that COVID-19 has exacerbated this by depriving kids of in-person school environments and critical opportunities to experience rich language learning. I think by the end of 2021, we might see concerning numbers that require a larger focus on investing resources to ensure that these long-term EL students don’t drop out and are being adequately supported and engaged in their learning.

YCL:
On the flip side of that question, what excites you about Ellevation’s work and about EL students?

JM:
We’re clearly in an incredible period of disruption, with educators, families, and children — especially EL students — feeling a great deal of sustained stress. Ellevation’s mission, products, and services are designed to alleviate some of that stress. We’re well positioned to be a terrific asset for schools, educators, and students to meet this moment. 

YCL:
In closing, what personally calls you to this work?

JM:
Growing up, I knew what it was like to feel and live in a tumultuous environment and to feel vulnerable. That’s what led me to focus in part on education. I also worked at a residential camp for kids with severe emotional disturbances (victims of abuse and neglect). The experience gave me a unique window into how profoundly these kids were struggling but also the tremendous assets these same kids possess. They needed adults and communities to be there for them. So I helped start Jumpstart and focused my work on how to ensure we do the best we can to support struggling students in underserved communities. Ellevation gives me the opportunity to marry each of these things — focusing on underserved students, building a mission-oriented organization and team, and having an opportunity to impact and serve EL students and teachers — every day.

YCL:
Having grown up in a Spanish-speaking family and teaching ELs, thank you for your work.

Building Connection and Boosting Achievement: The Role of Language Immersion Schools

Photo courtesy of Allison Shelley/The Verbatim Agency for EDUimages

Too many Americans are missing out on the benefits of multilingualism. While roughly half of the world’s population is bilingual or multilingual, only 20% of Americans can speak a language other than English fluently. Of that 20%, more than half were born outside of the U.S. American students rarely gain foreign language fluency in public schools, as opposed to Europe, where dual- or multi-language learning is embedded in primary education. Language learning at a young age has been proven to promote language retention into adulthood and provide a host of other social and academic benefits. As part of the 1% of American students who gained fluency in a new language through school, I can directly attest to its lifelong benefits. 

From kindergarten through fifth grade, I attended a French-immersion public magnet school. At language immersion schools, students are expected to speak exclusively in a given language while learning all of the standard subjects that would be taught at a typical American school. I learned science, math, history, and art just like any other student, but in French. We began supplementary English classes in the second grade to learn grammar and spelling, but our main curriculum was rooted in French. Although I had no prior exposure to French before kindergarten, by the time I reached third grade I was fluent. 

Since leaving a French-speaking environment in elementary school, my ability to speak French fluently has diminished slightly, but the experience has continued to benefit me in my academic and professional pursuits. In high school, I took Spanish for my required language classes and found it to be very similar to learning French. Picking up on the similarities between the two languages allowed me to excel at Spanish and speak the language with greater confidence. However, I’ve noticed that even today, my French retention is stronger. I believe this is largely due to learning the language at a younger age. 

Socially, I’ve used French to build relationships with native French speakers that wouldn’t be possible if I only spoke English. I think of my current neighbor, who is originally from Morocco and spent time living in France, who instantly lit up when he found out that I could speak in a language more familiar to him. Or the French-speaking high school exchange student I hosted from Mali, who felt more comfortable learning English with me knowing she could ask for translation support. The level of connection I’ve been privileged to experience with others has helped me learn about different cultures and expand my worldview ​​— an opportunity all Americans should be afforded.

Professionally, I’ve been able to apply my language skills in translation services. I once interned at a crisis center in Charlotte, North Carolina that received clients from all over the county. We had clients who immigrated to the U.S. from French-speaking countries and spoke little English. Out of a staff of more than 30 employees, I was the only one who could translate and communicate with them. In public service, multilingual staff can help connect non-native English speakers to necessary resources. 

As the immigrant population continues to grow in the U.S., more employers are placing greater value on bilingualism as a preferred skill. In fact, workers in the U.S. with fluency in more than one language tend to earn more on average. Learning another language as early as possible sets students on a trajectory for greater earning potential and aligns with workforce needs. 

The popularity of language immersion schools has increased significantly over the last few decades, yet there are not nearly enough schools to meet demand. Many native and non-native English-speaking families are seeking language immersion programs because of their positive effects on student academic performance. Studies have shown that elementary school students in language immersion programs tend to have higher math test scores and demonstrate similar levels of proficiency in English Language Arts as non-immersion students. Language immersion schools have also been effective at closing achievement gaps, with Black and Latino students performing on par with — or often outperforming — their white peers.

Language is a source of connection that far too many Americans take for granted. I was lucky to attend one of more than 337 language immersion elementary schools in the U.S., an opportunity that every family should have. Learning French has opened new worlds and exposed me to a variety of cultures and people. Language immersion schools are a necessary tool to produce more well-rounded global thinkers that can communicate effectively with people from different backgrounds.

Given the academic, social, and professional benefits of being bilingual, language immersion schools should be a priority for K-12 school districts in the U.S.

Saidah Rahman completed an internship at Bellwether Education Partners this summer focused on education policy. She is currently pursuing a master’s degree in public policy and management at Carnegie Mellon University. 

Assets, Not Barriers: 5 Ways Teachers Can Connect With and Empower Families Across Language Barriers

This week, Bellwether staff share their perspectives on family and parent engagement. Follow Ahead of the Heard from now until Friday for a series of blog posts that tackle common misconceptions about engaged parents, working with multilingual families, and more. Click here to read other posts in the series thus far.

 

We know that parent engagement makes a difference. Students whose family members are involved in their education, regardless of their background or income, have better attendance, higher grades, and more rigorous course schedules.

But what if a language barrier keeps schools from fully connecting with parents and families?  English Language Learners are the fastest growing segment of the student population — in 2014, 11.8 million students spoke a language other than English at home. It’s imperative for schools and teachers to collaborate in support of students and families across languages. Not only that, but embracing and encouraging multiple languages and cultures (in the classroom) can be an educational asset. In order to get there, teachers must be willing to engage.

Christian Martínez-Canchola, photo via author

I spoke with my friend and former colleague, Christian Martínez-Canchola, about the best strategies teachers can employ to connect across language barriers. Christian currently serves as the Primary Years Programme Dean at Uplift Grand Preparatory in Dallas, Texas. As a classroom teacher, Christian led her bilingual students to outstanding outcomes — they consistently outperformed district averages by 30-point margins on district, state, and national assessments.

While this is by no means an exhaustive list, Christian suggests five ways teachers — regardless of their language abilities — can engage multilingual families and communities in a partnership for student success:

  1. Establish trust: Speaking in a language you aren’t comfortable with is a vulnerable experience; building a trusting relationship with students and families should be one of a teacher’s first priorities. To foster this, Christian is a proponent of starting the year off with a bilingual parent survey. The outreach effort signals immediate investment to parents, and allows teachers an early look into their students’ lives. Questions range from basic contact information, to more personal inquiries. “I ask parents to describe their child’s strengths, their weaknesses, what they want to be when they grow up,” says Christian. “These are the people who know their children best.”
  2. Listen and then act: It can be easy for teachers and school staff to make well-intentioned assumptions even without a language barrier — when communication is challenging, the danger for misdiagnosis intensifies. Make conscious contact with parents and community members to identify needs.“There are always parents talking to one another. Leverage conversations with those key stakeholders — you may think parents would benefit most from a car seat drive, but in reality, they may need assistance calling the electric company or accessing dental care instead.”
  3. Redefine what engagement looks like: A narrow definition of family engagement can lead otherwise interested parents to count themselves out. Says Christian, “the parents who typically volunteer in classrooms can afford the time. For most parents though, that’s a privilege. I found that there was this misconception that parents had to physically be in the school to help, when that wasn’t the case at all.” Family members, regardless of language, can assist teachers in other ways. Classroom support can happen at home, from cutting out math manipulatives to assembling packets and leveled books. Christian adds: “Parents want to be involved. Even something small, like sending home classroom materials to be cut out, allows them to have a role in the success of their kids.”
  4. Prioritize intentionality and structure: Home visits and back-to-school nights can provide opportunities to establish trust and build partnerships. At the same time, Christian stresses the importance of planning these interactions and of not allowing them to be too ad-hoc. “If they’re intentional, [home visits] can be really impactful, but they lose all power when flimsily done,” she says. “I like when they’re structured, when schools or even outside agencies provide [teachers with] training on their actual impact and the logistical needs a bilingual home visit requires.”
  5. Empower teachers with existing resources: Districts and school leaders can connect their teaching staff with free and low-cost tools to make translation easier. Many large districts, including District of Columbia Public Schools, New York City Department of Education, and Dallas Independent School District, have translation hotlines, where teachers can reach interpreters and teams dedicated to translating documents. In addition, the Google Translate app has text translation for over 100 languages, and can translate bilingual conversations for 32 others. While not a true replacement for face-to-face translation, these tools can serve as a point of entry.


Christian’s work is fueled by a fervent desire to exemplify the strength and power of her students and their families. As one of the few Latinx and bilingual school leaders in her network, Christian says she is passionate about building a pipeline of educators who both reflect the communities that they serve and driving transformational, sustainable change. We can borrow lessons from her work empowering teachers to connect across lines of differences in the pursuit of positive outcomes for all children.

How ESSA Title III Could Encourage Improvements for Dual Language Learners

English learners from ages 0-8, also called dual language learners (DLLs), are a growing population of students who face daunting achievement and graduation gaps. New guidance out recently from the Department of Education highlights some opportunities for pre-k through third grade system improvements for DLLs under the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), specifically around how school districts may spend their funds for Title III. Title III provides approximately $760 million to states to improve instruction for English learners and immigrant students. These funds could be used to create better systems for DLLs if school districts partner with early childhood education (ECE) providers to take up some of the options in the new law and run with them.

  • Include pre-k teachers in professional development: First, ESSA specifically encourages states and districts to include preschool teachers in professional development on improving teaching skills for DLLs. This includes school-based ECE teachers, as well as Head Start teachers and community-based providers. Simply getting elementary school teachers and community-based ECE teachers in the same room is unusual, doing so while addressing the diverse needs of DLL students could be could be a big step forward.
  • Support effective language instruction across ECE: The guidance encourages school districts to make preschool language instruction part of their overall language instruction strategy, and this doesn’t only apply to on-site classrooms: school districts may sub-grant some of their Title III funds to support DLL instruction in ECE settings. While schools are rarely thrilled to give away funds, early action to support DLLs will yield dividends once those students transition into elementary schools.
  • Engage families early: ESSA adds a new Title III spending requirement: parent and family engagement. Families are young children’s most important resource for language learning and healthy development, as was reaffirmed in a joint policy statement on DLL family engagement earlier this year. Under ESSA, Title III family engagement is not limited to K-12 schools; school districts can use Title III funds to support DLL family engagement in ECE settings, and the guidance gives examples of how Title III can be used to support broader family engagement efforts.  
  • Share data effectively with ECE providers to inform improvement: School districts are required to share data and coordinate activities on DLL instruction with local Head Start agencies and other ECE providers, on topics such as standards, curricula, instruction, and assessments. The requirements on what data to share and what activities to coordinate aren’t very specific, but the aim is to create “a feedback loop that informs the improvement of programs and supports,” for DLLs. If this is done well, ECE providers could see how their DLL students are doing in elementary school, and open lines of communication could help schools and ECE providers both improve.

This is all a lot to accomplish with a limited pool of Title III funds — 71% of Title III school districts found funding for DLLs to be a moderate or major challenge according to a national evaluation published in 2012. But, with smart coordination, combining funding from other grant programs and funding streams, and improved relationships between schools and ECE providers, ESSA Title III requirements could be the nudge some school systems need to take action towards building better pre-k through third grade systems for DLLs and all young students.

Engaging Low-Income Families and Families of Color to be Architects of Education Policy

Milagros Barsallo

Milagros Barsallo

Mid-September through Mid-October marks Hispanic Heritage Month, a time dedicated to celebrate the cultures and contributions of Hispanic Americans. In September, the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanics awarded 230 organizations with the title of “Bright Spots” in Hispanic Education. Bring Spots awardees have wide-ranging missions and goals, but all support Latino educational attainment and excellence.

One Bright Spots winner is RISE Colorado, a nonprofit based in Aurora, Colorado that works to provide low-income families and families of color with the knowledge, skills, and resources to identify and work on issues they feel are necessary to create educational equity in the public school system. Founded in May 2012, and currently led by Milagros Barsallo and Veronica Palmer, RISE Colorado has educated 1,070 families of 1,914 school-aged children about the opportunity gap and worked with these families to organize campaigns and assume decision-making positions at school and district levels.

Veronica Palmer

Veronica Palmer

RISE Colorado is flipping parent advocacy on its head with a community-focused model of organizing. Barsallo and Palmer’s journey as young, Latina women entrepreneurs breaking the mold in a crowded advocacy space has not been an easy one, but their victories thus far and the passion of the families they work with fuel their desire to push forward. I spoke to Barsallo and Palmer over the phone to learn about the impact RISE is making in Colorado since its founding, the policy areas of most interest to the families they work with, the progress they’ve made, and the challenges they face.

What follows is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation. 

Kaitlin Pennington: There are a lot of advocacy organizations in education. Some may even argue that there are also several parent advocacy organizations in education. What space is RISE filling?

Milagros Barsallo: In our landscape in Colorado, but also in the national landscape of family engagement, what we see are two different types of opportunities for families to get involved in the school system. On the one hand, we see opportunities for learning either through a liaison in schools or an educational organization that might provide workshops for parents. For the most part, families are not being offered big picture information that the rest of us have about the opportunity gap or opportunities tied to action. On the flip side, we’re also seeing a lot of opportunities that involve action, like opportunities for families to write to their legislators or get involved in testimony for policies. In these situations, low-income families and families of color are asked to get involved in the 11th hour after somebody else has made the decision about what’s best for their communities, and they are not part of that decision-making process. RISE was founded to fill that gap.

Veronica Palmer: Our families are architects of policy, not objects of policy. We have a theory of change that is also very different from other organizations. We believe that those most impacted by the inequity that exists must lead the movement for themselves. Women led the suffrage movement, Cesar Chavez and farmworkers led the farmworkers movement and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and African Americans led the civil rights movement. Who is most impacted by educational inequity? Low-income families and families of color, therefore they must be the ones to lead the movement in order for us to ever truly achieve educational equity.

Pennington: RISE educates, engages and empowers parents. What does this look like?

Barsallo: We created our model to meet families where they’re at. First, we educate them about the opportunity gap that their kids are facing through workshops that we do in collaboration with schools and community partners. Then we engage them and teach them how to organize and take on the campaigns they want to take on and offer solutions that they think will improve academic achievement. Then we empower them to seek elected or appointed leadership at school or district levels so that they can actually implement those changes and see academic achievement improve for low-income children and children of color.

Palmer: We actually don’t see ourselves as an advocacy organization because the definition of advocacy itself is doing something on behalf of somebody else. Our model is that we don’t do anything for our families that they can’t do for themselves. We believe that they can change the system themselves with the right knowledge, opportunities, and supports. We see ourselves as a family engagement organization that empowers families to rise up to be change agents to create the systemic change we need in education.

Pennington: Can you talk about how you identify the communities you work with? Continue reading