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Philanthropy and Education: Support for Those Learning English

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School may be out for the summer, but there's no break for ideas and debate about the best -- and worst -- ways for funders to help fix America's education system. Certainly engaging with policymakers is critical. In a later post, I'll discuss the issue of foundations' increasing interest in and effort to influence education policy.

But one specific education idea that has gotten less attention than it deserves is the need to help those whose native language isn't English.

It's not just children of immigrants who are "English Language Learners," but also those who live in linguistically homogenous communities. And it's not just students in those states, including California, Texas and New York, with a history of immigration and multi-language environments. In fact, ELL populations are growing everywhere, and the fastest increase is occurring in states such as South Carolina, Indiana and Delaware, where school systems are less familiar and less equipped to help non-native English speakers. That's according to 2009 data from the Migration Policy Institute as cited in a recent web seminar sponsored by Grantmakers for Education (GFE) and Grantmakers Concerned with Immigrants and Refugees (GCIR). The two organizations have teamed up for a two-day briefing to be held next week in New York, exploring how funders can address ELL needs at various stages of youth development, from pre-school to elementary and secondary education to out-of-school time.

The recent web seminar -- of which presentation slides and an audio recordings are available -- specifically focused on a "two-generation" approach to literacy: working with parents as well as students. Parents are "their children's first and life-long teachers," and engaging them is the key to success. For example, Joanna Brown of Chicago's Logan Square Neighborhood Association talked about how her association helped to develop lasting relationships between parents and teachers, through after-school workshops and evening meetings. Before such efforts, teachers were skeptical of how much parents could help them in their work. And many parents were suspicious that the teachers had ulterior motives, such as reporting on their immigration status.

Helping non-native English speakers become fluent both enhances their opportunities and enables them to contribute fully to society more broadly. Improved quality of life and enhanced social cohesion are among philanthropy's most ambitious and important goals.