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Prizing English Language Learners: A Conversation with Luther Burbank High School Principal Ted Appel

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People in our business commonly talk about the challenges of teaching students who are still learning English. Not so Ted Appel of Luther Burbank High School in California. He sees these students as an asset.

More than half of his school's students are English language learners. About nine in ten come from low-income families. Though some schools might see such students as a drag on their test scores, Luther Burbank High welcomes them from neighborhoods far from its own. For Appel, such students enrich the school in ways standard school rating systems cannot begin to capture.

Appel recently told us about his school--and about the state and federal  policies that can at times impede its vital work.

Public School Insights: Tell me a little bit about Luther Burbank High School.

Appel: It is a comprehensive high school with about 2100 students. About 90% are on free or reduced lunch. About 35% are Southeast Asian, mostly Hmong. We are about 25% Latino, about 20% African-American, and whatever percentage is left is from everywhere else in the world.

Public School Insights: So you must have a lot of different languages spoken in the school.

Appel: Yes. The predominant languages are Hmong and Spanish. For about 55% of our student population, English is not the primary language spoken at home. They are English learners.

Public School Insights: I would assume this population has a pretty big impact on your school and the teaching strategies you to use. Is that true?

Appel: Absolutely. One of the advantages of having such a large number of English learners is that we in a way do not have an English learner program. We try to foster a sense that all teachers are likely to be teaching English learners, so there is not a sense that English learners are the kids that somebody else teaches in a program outside of the school. If we are not reaching English learners, then we are not teaching our kids.

Public School Insights: It is interesting that you did not describe this large population as a liability, but almost as an advantage. Some people might say that having so many English Language Learners in one school could be a problem, that it could be something very difficult to work with and actually drag down the academic program. It sounds to me like you don't believe that.

Appel: Well, these are our students. It makes for a dynamic, exciting place. If you want to speak narrowly about state tests and scores, then I guess you could describe a negative impact or say that it depresses scores in certain ways, because English learners have some challenges being successful on those tests that students who only speak English do not have. But in terms of the school being a dynamic, exciting place, and the impact of this population in forcing teachers to use good instructional strategies, period—they cannot get away with less—I think it makes it a better school, if you are defining good school as one in which good teaching takes place. And awareness of language issues as part of that good teaching.

Public School Insights: So if we take that definition of a good school, what are some of the instructional practices that you use with English Language Learners that you think really help make you a good school?

Appel: Let me first broaden that definition. A good school is certainly one where good teaching takes place, and also one where structures foster the kind of relationships that are valuable to learning. And a good school is a place is fosters an academic culture for all students.

So some of the instructional strategies…[We focus on strategies that affect both the] affective and cognitive [domains]. We use structures that create the kind of relationships where teachers know their students and know something about their background and some of their challenges, as well as some of the attributes that make them interesting as learners.

Also, learning is continuously contextualized. Background information is constantly being developed. Vocabulary development is an ongoing process. Word walls, read alouds and think alouds are important strategies that are used frequently. So those would be a few.

Public School Insights: How do you address the broader culture in ways that really add value to your school?

Appel: I think we do some of the traditional things. Cross-cultural assemblies, and honoring the native cultures that are represented here. We have classes like Spanish for Spanish speakers and Hmong for Hmong speakers. That helps create an atmosphere that says, “You belong here, ” as opposed to one that says, “You are a foreign student, visiting this school.” We want to have a culture that says that this is a place that honors what you bring and wants to cultivate what you bring while teaching you new approaches and giving you access to the opportunities that being a proficient English speaker and writer offers.

Public School Insights: I have also heard that you have a very robust teacher home visit program at Luther Burbank. Does that mean that teachers are regularly going to student homes and meeting and working with the parents?

Appel: We do have that program. There are targeted home visits that quite a number of teachers and counselors do, but it is not that all the kids are being regularly visited. The idea is that we want to get to know people beyond the confines of our structures.

Public School Insights: You mentioned earlier that in thinking about the conventional standards of a school’s quality—test scores—you believe that having such a high English Language Learner population might mean that your test scores can suffer. But you believe that the quality of what you do is all the better because you have these students. Do you believe that there are policy structures in place to help your work, or do you think that they hinder your work? Or a little of both?

Appel: To go back just a second…You described the conventional ways of evaluating schools. It is interesting that state tests are referred to as already as the conventional base. It just shows how quickly they have become the completely accepted norm. I think in the past schools were evaluated more broadly based on process checks and inputs and not simply on outputs.

Obviously, there is value in examining outcome results, but not without examining the inputs as well. What are the processes, structures, programs and training being offered to students and to teachers? I think those things need to be examined, because with the wide range of preparation that students enter the schools with, I do not think that you can merely evaluate outcomes without looking at whether schools are doing the good and right things.

Public School Insights: Given that more than half your school’s student body is English Language Learners, do you feel that federal laws are helping you address these students’ needs?

Appel: There are federal monies that we receive. So resource-wise I feel like we are pretty well supported. In terms of how schools are being evaluated on the state and federal level, I think that the look is too narrow in judging the progress that a school is making. And that is a hindrance because I think that what it tends to do, though we have avoided this, is create a lot of perverse incentives for schools to do things that are not necessarily in the best interest of the population who should be attending the school.

I think there are a lot of schools that are very focused on doing things that attract a different student population, one that is more likely to be successful on state tests, and that in some cases displaces students. In some cases, they may eliminate important programs or services to discourage some students who might struggle on state tests from attending the school. And I think that when you see schools being reconstituted by districts, a lot of that involves attracting a slightly or significantly different student population to the school. The quickest and easiest way to change a school's test scores is to change the student population that is attending. That is done sometimes in overt ways, with admission requirements. And sometimes it done less intentionally, through dress codes, required longer days, required parent involvement…things that some families just can't do. And it changes the student population.

Public School Insights: With students who come in, as I gather many of your students do, not only speaking no English but perhaps even having had very limited schooling before they come to Burbank, do you feel that you have the leeway to hold on to students long enough that you can get them to a place where you think that they can succeed?

Appel: We can hold on to them. And we do in some cases. But there are situations in which I think a student’s language development can plateau after they reach a certain comfort zone, so moving on to community college and so forth in some situations is the right thing to do.

Public School Insights: So there is a question of challenging them and moving them onto the next step.

Appel: Yes, exactly. But I do not feel particularly constrained to either move them on or to keep them. I think that we can make a good judgment [on a case-by-case basis]. Though I do think that there are schools that move students on based on external testing issues rather than the educational needs of the students. In some cases, I know this happens.

Another thing…Because we have a fairly large English learner population it is feasible for us to offer some special programs here. We have the critical mass that makes it efficient to run a wide variety of levels of classes for English learners. And because of that we sometimes have attracted students from outside of our attendance area. We have given those students permits to attend. I have been told by administrators at the district level that we should not do that, because it is hurting our scores. But it is clearly in the interest of the students. Their home school may not have that critical mass and therefore is more limited in what it can offer. So that belief that—and of course it is not true in all cases—English learners won't do well on the test can be harmful.

Public School Insights: Is there a brief message that you would like to deliver to other educators who face some of the challenges you do, especially with English Language Learners?

Appel: These students are delightful to teach and are certainly excited learners, so I'm not exactly sure what is meant by “challenge.”

Public School Insights: That might be the message. In the policy community at the national level, we always hear, “Those are the challenging kids. They are harder to teach.” But it sounds like the message that you are sending is that they are delightful to teach.

Appel: If you have a student who is excited about learning, works extremely hard to develop academically and is interested in engaging in extracurricular activities in the school community, you would say, “What a wonderful asset to the school.” And that is who these students are. The only issue is that they are coming in with some academic gaps or deficits, primarily language, that will register negatively on the state tests. But in terms of who you want to have in your school, it is these kids.

Public School Insights: So people really need to get an entirely new vision of what an English Language Learner brings to the table.

Appel: Exactly, and to get past the current perception of what is a good school. And the external pressures of making that good school.

The issue is not that there should not be state tests. The issue with the state tests is in the labeling of the schools based upon them. The tests give us important information about a variety of things that are happening or not happening for kids in a school. But pressure is created by labeling the school based upon them, and that is really inaccurate.

Public School Insights: So the time is coming to use tests more as tools to improve practice?

Appel: Yes. To diagnose some aspects of practice and to create in some cases some scrutiny. But really to examine what the practices are. If you label a school because of these outcome numbers, that is where the perverse incentives come in. And that is where I imagine significant prejudice against English learners.