El Diario Op-Ed on Priority of ELLs for New Chancellor By Claire Sylvan & Steven Choi

By Claire Sylvan and Steven Choi
The new Chancellor of the New York City Department of Education, Carmen Fariña inherits a system of more than 1500 schools and over a million students, of whom 41% speak one of 160 languages. These students’ language skills and cultural fluency are golden advantages in the multi-lingual, global economy and New York City’s success will hinge in part by Farina’s ability to meet the needs of the 160,000 English language learner students (ELLs) –15% of the total school population-- as well as their immigrant parents.  These students have to learn a new language, master academics and the newly arrived need to learn a new culture and school system.  Although they have great potential, the system these students are being left behind.  Only one ELL out of three graduates in four years—compared to a greater than 60% rate for all students. And the proficiency rates on State tests for 3rd through 8th graders r for ELLs were shockingly low – 3% for English, 11% for math. 
Mayor-elect de Blasio noted that a system-wide response is needed, and we agree. The new Chancellor must provide additional support both during the school day and beyond. She must expand access for ELLs to a full range of programs– particularly Career and Technical Education and alternative pathways to graduation. The Chancellor must, providing real access to translation and interpretation and supports at critical junctures in the school system, such as preparing high school applications. Furthermore, the Mayor’s plan for a pre-K expansion must prioritize these students and incorporate their home languages and cultural assets.
Critically, the accountability system for schools, principals, and teachers must eliminate the disincentives for schools that serve ELLs and other struggling students, making them “untouchables”.  Continued autonomy for schools -- in the key areas of budget, personnel, scheduling, professional development and how schools are supported organizationally by the NYCDOE– coupled with a collaborative work environment will foster the creativity and innovation needed to solve complex problems.
Carmen Fariña has the opportunity to tap one of New York City’s greatest resources --ELLs’ and immigrant students’ native language skills—and to harness their grit and perseverance, assets not captured by standardized tests.  In fact, over-reliance on high-stakes tests consigns these students to a path of failure and underachievement that they don’t deserve.
Within the school system there are certain schools and programs that have been the exception to the rule: they have excelled in successfully educating English language learners and immigrants. The new Chancellor must act fast to build on these models of excellence to unleash the potential of all ELLs.  To improve ELL achievement, we must address both how we educate ELLs and how we assess their abilities.
Claire Sylvan is the founding Executive Director of the Internationals Network for Public Schools
Steven Choi is the Executive Director of the New York Immigration Coalition