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Laura Wellington Headshot

ELL Parents: Forcing Change and Fighting to Be Heard Within Our U.S. School System!

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Only in America can taking 36th place award you a grand prize of $71 billion dollars. But that's where we are folks. According to the 2012 Program For International Student Assessment (PISA), the United States falls behind 35 other countries in the education we are providing our kids. Even scarier is the notion that we fail to meet acceptable math standards amongst the competition. And yet, the United States outspends every other country in the world by almost double per child to teach them, which does not include private sector funds. So the $71 billion in discretionary funding plus the$750 million in early-childhood education funding and the $75 billion in mandatory funding designated over the next ten years -- encapsulating the 2014 U.S. Education Budget -- isn't enough to educate our kids past space number 36, even in combination with another 25 percent in private sector funding totaling over $15,000 being spent on each of our kids. It seems that I'm living in the right country, folks, because in my book those facts really don't add up!

Now, mind you -- in all fairness to U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and the U.S. school system in general -- our nation is coping with a number of truly unique and strenuous circumstances that are impacting our ranking on the international scale of education excellence of which other countries are not dealing with, including the rapid expansion of ELL kids into our schools which will grow to make up twenty-five percent of our student population by 2025. Citing over 160 different languages to cope with as the bell rings each morning, teachers are no longer just focused on teaching the required material (Common Core or otherwise) but with how to communicate effectively while remaining obligated to meet standards that will determine future budgets and overall success on both national and global levels. And they are doing so at an even greater disadvantage -- remiss of critical input from parents who can't speak English at all or to any degree that would invite both parents and teachers onto the same team and strengthen our children's education in the way we currently need.

No wonder we can't compete. For many, the most important coaches in kids' lives can't speak to each other irrespective of the governing requirements laid out by the "No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act and Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which re-affirms parent involvement as a core principle of a quality education and even provides a specific definition of what the term "parent involvement" means. Drilled down -- parents have a right to maintain a full partnership in their kids' education. They have a right to be informed on EVERYTHING that involves their kids' education in their native tongue. And they have a right to be involved in the decisions that govern their kids' education regardless of whether or not the schools have the budgets or means to translate required information into all160 individual languages. And those rights are no longer skirting accountability when it comes to ELL parents enforcing them. Federal complaints are being filed, such as in the recent case of the Orleans Parish School District, who are failing to provide Spanish and Vietnamese parents with translated documents concerning major school events, parent-teacher conferences, school closures, disciplinary infractions, special-education services, and other topics. ELL Parents are raising their voices whether or not they can speak English and listening to them is no longer optional by any means. More of that $71 billion will be required to fund programs that support ELL kids and their parents going forward than ever before or they will be designated to lawsuits that will, inevitably, occur as a result of not.

The ELL issue isn't just comprised of a multitude of languages having to be dealt with, though, but varying stages of learning as ELL children enter U.S. schools only to fall grades behind students of their same chronological ages. Bringing them up to speed, while trying to teach them material everyone else in their class is learning, atop educating them to a whole new language or bridging the gaps that exist is nearly impossible despite the desire and willingness of teachers to do so. The job is an enormous one and well beyond the capacity of any single teacher under current teaching circumstances despite talent or effort. That said, the harsh reality of our education landscape will no longer tolerate "human limitation" as an acceptable excuse, especially as each state "Races to the Top" and our nation races to get back into the game.

Thankfully, corporate America reigns true in its ability to identify trends and fill needs in support of academia and burgeoning young minds. No doubt, Bill and Melinda Gates and Mark Zuckerberg are some of the most high profile leaders adding their input and dollars to strengthening our education system. But some lesser known names are also lending their brains and brawn to the cause in innovative ways that will help to improve ELL learning while bridging the communication gaps between ELL parents, teachers, and school administrations in ways that offer value well beyond the minimal dollars these companies are asking in exchange.

LivingTree, founded by Cullen Childress in 2012, provides schools and teachers with a highly innovative technology-based solution solving the immediate need to converse, connect, and exchange all of the necessary information required by ELL parents securely and in forty languages. Located in Austin, Texas, Cullen Childress realized the necessity for this type of technology through his own personal experience of raising his kids in a state with one of the fastest growing ELL student populations in the country. He also realized the importance of providing it to schools as well as social and athletic organizations without obliterating their bottom lines. Parents can sign up for free. LivingTree invites all of the most important "coaches" in children's lives onto the same team and gives them the ability to interact, inform, organize, and coach effectively, regularly, and comfortably without relying upon inconvenient and expensive oral interpreters. With seven hundred clients to date and climbing rapidly, LivingTree offers a simple solution that buys schools time to tackle the larger, more complex, long-term issues posed by the ELL revolution.

Panorama Education is another newcomer to the ELL conundrum. Backed "in-part" by Mark Zuckerberg, Panorama Education surveys schools, teachers, parents, and students to ascertain the entire learning experience and environment from all perspectives. This information is then translated to solution -- specific to each school. With over 4,000 schools actively participating across the nation, Panorama Education allows for school districts to effectively target where dollars should be spent -- mitigating waste and increasing efficiency. Originally a student activist from California, Founder Aaron Feuer refused to accept his public pleas for appropriate "survey testing" within schools to be denied. His determination, efforts and entrepreneurial spirit paid off as he runs between, now, two offices to keep up with demand.

WIDA (World-Class Instruction Design and Assessment) led by Tim Boals is yet another company whose commitment to the benefits of "curriculum-based" testing is changing the face of the ELL atmosphere -- especially for our teachers. With a growing movement to share ELL issues and solutions amongst schools collectively, the WIDA consortium presently consists of eighteen states -- all committed to figuring out where each child sits on the ELL learning curve and what to do about it. Additionally, WIDA provides extensive opportunities for continued education for teachers through its many classes and conferences held, which consistently sell-out faster than new ones can be arranged. Tim Boals and WIDA strongly believe that "Students' development of social, instructional, and academic language - a complex and long-term process -- is the foundation for their success in school"... and thereafter, no doubt, as statistics show that a lack in such proficiency severely impacts ELL students' decisions to graduate high school and achieve postsecondary degrees.

Intercambio (Uniting Communities) rounds out the list of forward-thinking companies by actually helping ELL parents learn English in cooperation with the school districts, churches and refugee organizations -- all seeking to communicate information about their kids better. Providing a "one-stop" shopping experience per say at a cost that everyone can afford, the demand for Intercambio's products and services has expanded this company well-beyond their origins of Boulder County, Colorado, into such cities and school districts as Hackensack, NJ, where classes take on waiting lists of over one hundred and fifty parents regularly -- a far cry from Founders Lee Shainis and Shawn Camden's initial expectations when they launched the company in their basement in 2000.

Suffice-it-to-say, the enormity of the ELL predicament our nation is facing won't solve itself...and certainly not through dollars alone. Given it could, we'd have already done so rather than allow it to negatively impact all of our children's educations. If the issue can be solved at all, the solution combines several legs. Thought leaders -- such as those named above -- will need to continue to emerge to support academia as it finds its required footing in a nation made up of many students, a multitude of languages, sinking test scores and unacceptable, embarrassing rankings. The job we now need to do is not just one that prevents "No Child" from being left behind, but from "ALL" our nation's children being left behind. I promise you, it's going to take a heck of a lot more than $71 billion a year to support each one of them given circumstances don't change -- leaving the United States to sink further down the PISA chart and into an inescapable grave.