Case study: San Diego, CA supports English learners with high-quality curriculum and professional learning

Over 20 percent of students in the San Diego Unified School District are classified as English Learners. Therefore centering the needs of English Learners, and prioritizing their learning, is critical to achieving education equity in one of California’s largest school districts.

San Diego Unified (SDU) has been doing this by transforming their mathematics instruction. Under the leadership of Ms. Aly Martinez, Math Instructional Coordinator, the district is breaking silos, providing professional development opportunities for educators, and making strides in redesigning their math curriculum to better serve English Learners.

“We are leading with shifting our instruction so that students are centered at the heart of the curriculum,” said Martinez about the work SDU is doing in support of ELs. “And, we are empowering teachers to use that curriculum to listen to their students and their voices.”

In partnership with the English Learners Success Forum as part of the Gates Foundation’s Professional Learning Partnership Initiative the district accomplished the following objectives:

  • Systematically collect information on ELs and how they’re doing academically. The district is leveraging their math nights, which provide a fun opportunity for families to come together and engage with the math curriculum, to solicit input around course progressions. By targeting parents of English Learners - both before and during COVID-19, the district is collecting feedback from families on the math experience of ELs, and how they are understanding the curriculum.
  • Integrating language considerations into core learning opportunities. As part of the district’s Enhanced Mathematics initiative, the district is weaving in the experience of English Learners throughout its new math framework - and addressing the role language plays in math class. Specifically, the district is bringing together individuals from the math department and EL department to ensure that whenever standards are being developed or discussed, the language needs of English Learners are explicitly stated and reflected in learning opportunities.
  • Create opportunities for specialized learning supporting language. The district has created “microcredential modules” on Canvas where teachers who elect to participate can receive professional learning credits. Teachers who participate complete readings, written reflections, watch videos of teachers conducting instruction routines, and then record themselves practicing similar routines so they, too, can receive feedback. This shared experience and feedback loop, allows for best practices to spread within the district, especially when it comes to best practices for serving English Learners.
  • Create opportunities for the leadership team to learn about language development. That feedback loop that teachers go through in their professional learning is also extended to the leadership team. Under Ms. Martinez’s direction, the leadership team meets weekly, and the individuals that are running the Professional Learning Communities are shadowed by others so they can step into that role, and learn from each other.

This effort is seeing progress because there is intentionality in weaving English Learners into the district’s redesign of its mathematics instruction rather than seeing it as a separate endeavor, because all meetings are human centered - in other words, teachers and coaches see their work as part of a larger community and they are more likely to collaborate - and because Ms. Aly is breaking silos between departments to create a shared responsibility to serve all students when it comes to mathematics.

“It's all about weaving student thinking into the instruction and giving students a voice. That’s what a high-quality curriculum does,” said Ms. Aly. “ Then, we need professional learning to support teachers in maximizing that curriculum. That’s what we did in this project and why we made so much progress.”

Photo by Allison Shelley for EDUimages

The mission of the English Learners Success Forum (ELSF) is to collaborate with field-leading researchers, district leaders, teachers, content creators, and education funders to improve the supply and accessibility of high-quality K-12 mainstream instructional materials that address the linguistic and cultural needs of ELs while building smart demand to reach educators at scale – all with the goal of providing ELs full access to grade-level content and quality learning. Unlike most efforts that aim to improve EL learning outcomes, ELSF focuses exclusively on ensuring that full-year core instructional materials guide teachers in addressing these students’ varying needs.


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