Long Beach-based nonprofit Californians Together is known for its achievements in advocating for equal education, and the latest award from Migration Policy Institute honors its work for promoting biliteracy reforms that benefit students in Long Beach and across the nation.
Californians Together was one of four organizations that received the 2012 $50,000 E Pluribus Unum Prizes on Sept. 24 at a ceremony in Baltimore, and was recognized for its work in implementing three efforts to improve education for young English language learners (ELL).
“We need to put English language learners at the center for school reform,” said Californians Together Executive Director Shelly Spiegel-Coleman. “We need to make them a target at what is still needed for them. There is a need to look at how ELL students are appreciated and included in day-to-day life at school.”
Californians Together is a statewide initiative that works with teachers, parents, administrators, school boards and other policy makers to challenge education issues, especially when it comes to the state’s 1.4 million ELL students.
During the last few years, the organization has put together three efforts to push for better education for ELL students.
Californians Together has been examining the way ELL students are included in the classroom, and wanted to develop a way to recognize the gifts and talents they offer to the community. They developed the Seal of Biliteracy, an award given by a school, district of county office of education to recognize ELL students who make strides in their proficiency in two or more languages by high school graduation.
“We wanted to show parents and the community that so many ELL students have tremendous gifts to offer,” Spiegel-Coleman said. “We saw Glendale Unified School District do something similar, and we thought it was a creative way in turning the conversation around in showcasing the abilities and potentials in all ELL students.”
The organization proposed a piece of legislature four years ago, but was turned down twice by Arnold Schwarzenegger.
“We were not deterred to try to work with districts independently to get them to duplicate what Glendale had done,” Spiegel-Coleman said. “Over four years, we got 60 districts across the state to implement a Seal of Biliteracy.”
On Oct. 8, 2011, Gov. Jerry Brown signed the bill — allowing California to be the first state in the nation to provide this kind of recognition. The bill became law in January 2012, and more than 10,000 high school seniors representing 42 different languages, including American Sign Language, were honored by the state at their graduation ceremonies.
There are now 169 districts that have a formal policy and offer the Seal of Biliteracy.
“There is tremendous momentum,” Spiegel-Coleman added. “LBUSD approved their seal on Aug. 20 (Long Beach Unified School District). We are very excited they approved it.”
The organization also focuses on the academic achievement of ELL students by working across school districts to look at middle and high school students who have made little or no progress.
During the last two years, Californians Together have helped schools and districts identify those students who have continuously scored poorly on state tests and not making progress in English.
“The majority of them speak English, but they’re sitting in mainstream classrooms without special support,” Shelly Spiegel-Coleman said. “We produced a report two years ago that hit a nerve across the state. People started looking at their data and we were asked to do presentations across the state on what we recommend districts should be doing to help the students.”
The report noted that 59% of ELL students have been English language learners for six or more years without real improvement. Last month, a piece of legislation was passed by the state that provides the definition of what an ELL student is, and how to identify those students who are at risk.
The third effort the organization advocated for was developing a state standard that aligned with the new Common Core State Standards that helps teachers understand the linguistic demands of ELL students, and what to do to prepare students to handle the Common Core educational standards.
“We’re the first in the nation to really take a proactive position in trying to turn the tide in the lack of progress and services for these students,” Shelly Spiegel-Coleman said. “Its impact is here locally, statewide and nationally.”