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Rousseau to LAUSD board: Native English students left behind

Vanessa Romo | April 10, 2014

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Sylvia Rousseau, Liaison LAUSD Board District 1

Sylvia Rousseau, Liaison LAUSD Board District 1

After less than two months on her temporary position as liaison for LA Unified’s District 1, Sylvia Rousseau says she’s figured out how to improve the academic performance of the most troubled schools: zero in on what’s called Standard English Learners.

Rousseau, a USC professor and former local superintendent in the district who was appointed to serve until a District 1 board member is elected later this year, told the board this week she approached the issue as a researcher, reviewing data for the schools in the region, most of them with high concentrations of students from low-income families.

Her conclusion: improving English was the best way to accelerate overall academic performance. That includes Standard English Learners, native speakers who do not possess a mastery of the language. They are separate from English Learners, who are students learning English as a new language (Here is her presentation to the board.)

“The discrepancies are immediately obvious,” she told the board in a long presentation of her analysis of the district. “There is a whole group of students whose right to language is not being recognized, and they are Standard English learners. We know, through extensive research that the syntax, the chronology and the grammar of that language is significantly different from that of the academic language of the classroom.”

She said some kids arrive in the classroom with skills that are consistent with the language of the curriculum, but most others in her district do not.

Rousseau framed her observations in the context of poverty. But poverty, she insisted, was no excuse for a failure to learn.

“Schools have little control over poverty,” she said. “But schools do have control over the response to poverty.”

In LA Unified, these students are predominantly African American, but Rousseau says it’s not exclusively a black issue.

“There are many Latino students who are born in the U.S., continue through our schools for 12 years and never achieve proficiency in the English language,” she said. That, she explains, is because they’re identified early on as English only speakers and they are promoted from grade to grade, without ever receiving formal instruction in the academic language of the classroom.

The U.S. Department of Education has found that 80 percent of students with limited English proficiency are born and raised in this country. Four out of five are citizens.

It was Rousseau’s first report to the board, and it was delivered just as the board is beginning to finalize the budget for next year. Rousseau asked the six members to consider the use of the new Local Control Funding Formula money, $332 million, to address this problem.

“So when we talk about funding, rather than navel gazing at the same test scores and literacy over and over again, recognizing that students cannot be literate in a language they have not acquired, and they can not acquire unless there is an intentional, systematic process for them to acquire the language.”

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