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?
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.
What does that work look like in practice in a classroom setting?
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.
What do you identify today as the biggest challenge facing ELs?
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.
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?
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.
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?
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.
We’ve been through a lot since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. What are you most worried about?
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.
On the flip side of that question, what excites you about Ellevation’s work and about EL students?
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.
In closing, what personally calls you to this work?
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.
Having grown up in a Spanish-speaking family and teaching ELs, thank you for your work.