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The Foundation: A Vision for English Learner Success in Southern California

In 2002, the superintendents of five Southern California County Offices of Education, building on a strong relationship of collaboration and support, began to discuss a pattern that was similar across the counties of Los Angeles, Orange, San Bernardino, San Diego, and Riverside – the alarmingly low academic performance of English learners (EL).

These five counties combined serve over one million EL students, more than 64% of the total EL population in the state of California, and close to 20% of the EL population in the nation. (U.S. Department of Education, 2004). Upon a cross analysis of students in all five counties, startling and highly concerning data showed the decreasing academic performance of students at both the elementary and secondary levels. At second grade only 13 to 22% of ELs in these counties were meeting the proficiency level in Language Arts. The picture worsened every year ELs were in school with only 2-4% of EL in the 11th grade were performing at a rate of proficient or above in Language Arts on the California Standards Test (CST). When scores on the California High School Exit Exam were examined, it showed that only 39% of ELs in the five counties were passing the Language Arts portion of the exam compared to 82% of California’s English-Only students and 49% of ELs passed the math portion in comparison to 78% statewide. Coupled with that, data also showed that fewer than 7% of ELs in these counties had full access to both English Language Development (ELD) and the core academic curriculum.

Grappling with both the increasing scale of non-success of ELs and how this gap in achievement reflected a disservice to students of diverse linguistic and cultural backgrounds, the superintendents moved to act. They formed a commitment to address these issues, called on key staff in each of their county offices of education to collaborate and address the glaring evidence that a certain sector of Southern California’s student population was being underserved and concentrate on the urgent need for improving student achievement.

From late 2002 to 2004, educators and researchers across these five counties worked diligently to identify existing strengths and challenges and provide evidence of promising programs and practices that were meeting the needs of students in various pockets of success throughout Southern California. Under the leadership of the Assistant Superintendents of Instruction from the five counties, data was compiled, effective programs were shared, and a common vision for the success of ELs began to emerge – a vision that was centered on collaborating to develop a transformative approach that by design builds bilingualism, biliteracy, and multiculturalism that systemically uses ELs’ languages, cultures, experiences, and skills as foundation for their learning and success.

From this beginning phase of development, The PROMISE Initiative – Pursuing Regional Opportunities for Mentoring, Innovation, and Success for English Learners – was born. Research development continued, funding was sought and applied for, trips to Washington DC occurred to procure the support of congressional leaders, a director of the project was hired and a formal organizational structure was implemented to draw on the support of the county offices of education to begin to build the vision and theory of action of the proposed pilot study. A sixth county partner, the Ventura County Office of Education, became aware of the work being done in its neighboring counties and asked to join the collaborative. With the addition of Ventura County, the six counties now represent 66% of all ELs in the state.

The PROMISE Initiative proposed a bold shift in how programs are delivered to ELs. PROMISE espoused a critical vision that ensures that ELs achieve and sustain high levels of proficiency, including literacy, in English and the home language; high levels of academic achievement, including proficiency on state standards across the curriculum and maintenance of that achievement in English after participation in specialized English Learner programs and through grade 12; sophisticated sociocultural and multicultural competency; preparation for successful transition to higher education; successful preparation as a 21st century global citizen; and high levels of motivation, confidence, and self-assurance.

The PROMISE Initiative operated under five overarching goals:

  • To fully define and operationalize the essential research-based PROMISE core principles for effective EL education.
  • To design, pilot and field test a process for adapting and enacting the principles in local contexts, including district, site and county level systems and infrastructure, that will maximally support the implementation.
  • To develop expertise and resources based on that work that respond to both traditional and high need/underserved EL populations.
  • To develop high-quality products and materials and disseminate to states, districts, and schools to assist them in identifying, developing, implementing, and monitoring implementation of proven programs.
  • To develop the processes for ensuring the appropriate adoption, implementation, and monitoring of EL models, strategies, and programs by other districts and schools.

The focus of the PROMISE Initiative has been to marshal the expertise and resources of the six counties by developing a powerful infrastructure for carrying out two big pieces of work. First, through PROMISE, research was conducted to distill a core of research-based guiding principles, and identify programs, strategies, and approaches for EL success aligned to these core principles. Second, PROMISE defined and piloted a reform model focused on building the capacity of schools and districts to implement powerful principles-based EL programs that result in English proficiency, mastery of academic content, and development of 21st century competencies.

The core of this systemic transformation model was a vision- and principles-based reform utilizing systemic co-design and collaboration strategies to put into practice what works to meet the needs of ELs. This reform model promoted the customization and operationalization of the eight PROMISE Core Principles (as listed and described below) through a specific action plan customized for each site to meet the needs of EL students:

  • ENRICHED AND AFFIRMING LEARNING ENVIRONMENTS – Create a safe, affirming, and enriched environment for participatory and inclusive learning.
  • EMPOWERING PEDAGOGY – Use culturally and linguistically responsive pedagogy that maximizes learning, actively accesses and develops student voice, and provides opportunities for leadership.
  • CHALLENGING AND RELEVANT CURRICULUM – Engage ELs in well articulated and age-appropriate curriculum that purposefully builds bilingualism, biliteracy, and multiculturalism. This curriculum is cognitively complex, coherent, relevant, and challenging.
  • HIGH QUALITY INSTRUCTIONAL RESOURCES – Provide and utilize high quality standards-aligned instructional resources that provide equitable access to core curriculum and academic language in the classroom, school, and community.
  • VALID AND COMPREHENSIVE ASSESSMENT – Build and implement valid and comprehensive assessment systems designed to promote reflective practice and data driven planning in order to improve academic, linguistic, and sociocultural outcomes for ELs.
  • HIGH QUALITY PROFESSIONAL PREPARATION & SUPPORT – Provide coherent, comprehensive, and ongoing professional preparation and support programs based on well-defined standards of practice. These programs are designed to create professional learning communities of administrators, teachers, and other staff to implement the PROMISE vision of excellent teaching for ELs.
  • POWERFUL FAMILY/COMMUNITY ENGAGEMENT – Implement strong family and community engagement programs that build leadership capacity and value and draw upon community funds of knowledge to inform, support, and enhance teaching and learning for ELs.
  • ADVOCACY-ORIENTED ADMINISTRATIVE/LEADERSHIP SYSTEMS – Provide advocacy-oriented administration and leadership that institute system-wide mechanisms to focus all stakeholders on the diverse needs and assets of ELs. These administrative and leadership systems structure, organize, coordinate, and integrate programs and services to respond systemically to EL needs.

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The PROMISE Initiative: Pursuing Regional Opportunities for Mentoring, Innovation, and Success for English Learners

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