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Rousseau’s LAUSD legacy, a push for standard English learning

Vanessa Romo | June 20, 2014

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Sylvia Rousseau LAUSD

Sylvia Rousseau

Sylvia Rousseau, the temporary liaison for LA Unified School District 1, is leaving her post on a high note.

Throughout her four-month tenure, Rousseau has been an avid advocate for the district’s Standard English Learners, a group of “invisible” students, as she calls them, who consistently perform well below grade level on all types of standardized tests.  Last week, her work paid off: the board passed the “Strengthen Support for Standard English Learners” resolution that she helped craft.

The resolution directs Superintendent John Deasy to develop a district-wide plan within three months for “culturally and linguistically responsive education.” Requirements include taking appropriate assessments; providing professional development for teachers and administrators and offering targeted resources in all schools.

Rousseau, whose day job is as a professor at the USC Rossier School of Education, is convinced that by focusing on standard English Learners — native speakers who do not possess a mastery of the language — the district could improve academic performance in the most troubled schools and boost graduation rates.

Rousseau was appointed in February, shortly after the death of board member Marguerite LaMotte, as the board’s liaison for District 1. She spoke with LA School Report earlier this week.

Q: It must feel great to have the board validate all the work you’ve been doing in District 1. What exactly does the resolution do?

A: This is a very important step and one that will have a significant impact on our students. But there is still a lot of work to do and a lot of questions we need to answer.

However the resolution does lay out some very concrete next steps: We have commitments that the Common Core standards professional development training will include professional development for teachers to be able to assist their standard English learners in acquiring academic English. This will provide specific techniques and knowledge of the languages that children bring that are not recognized as such, including African-American vernacular, Mexican American vernacular, Hawaiian pigeon.

Teachers will get some understanding of what they look like, so they recognize students who are speaking these languages, helping students to code switch so that they’re not losing their first language. They’re adding a second language so that they can function better in relation to the standards of the curriculum.

Q: Which teachers will be getting that instruction and when?

A: The intent is that that will start as early as this summer as teachers undergo Common Core training.

Q: So, what kind of work has been done?

A: I tried to look at fundamental issues that affect the way students learn. I have been looking at this work from about three layers; On the macro level, we must allocate funds to the proposition that something has to be done for those students who are not succeeding. Then, we have to develop systems and structures that follow the policy and funding. And the third piece is implementing those practices.

Q: Why do Standard English Learners — kids who, presumably, already speak the language — have such a hard time understanding and absorbing the curriculum?

A: There is a mindset that there is a right way to learn, and it works for white middle-class students, so why is it not working for the students of color?  It has not found its way into our education framework to say, “Perhaps we should change and review the way we approach these students or provide a different level of teaching approaches.”

Instead, we say we have to remediate these students because they didn’t get it the first time. So the blame ends up being on the child as if there were something wrong with the child rather than understanding how language works for all children.

We are still operating under some assumptions about who’s smart, whose language matters and whether some children’s language helps them learn academic English and access the curriculum and whether some children’s language doesn’t. So we spend a lot of time trying to take out of children the language they bring to school rather than building on that to help them acquire academic English and access the curriculum.

Q: It sounds like you’re talking about Ebonics. Are you? And is that a language that teachers should be learning and using in the classroom?

A: Yes, but this not only about Ebonics or African-American children. We have Latino children, for instance, who were born right here in the US who use an English vocabulary but whose home language is Spanish or some other indigenous language. So the structures and grammar and phonology are significantly different, which can confound the way that they hear and read and write in academic English.

Those children get no support in acquiring academic English because it’s assumed that the conversational English they use is sufficient. But when you look at the data, those children languish in much the same way that African-American students do in English-language proficiency.  So they can be born right here in the US and go to school for 12 or 13 years and still never establish English proficiency.

Q: Right, but back in the 1990s when the idea of Ebonics resurfaced, it became hugely controversial because people believed it meant teachers needed to lower their standards for academic English?

A: What happened is that such a buzz saw went off in Oakland that people just kind of scattered and ran from it. And there are people out of Stanford that provided so much content and rationale and evidence of the role of language, but it became highly political.

We know that there’s a common language and academics and a common language in our society. We are not saying we’re trying to substitute the language that they will need to function out in the world.  But we are saying you can’t get them to that language without using their first language as a building block.

Q: Is the district starting from scratch in terms of developing a teacher training model for standard English Learners?

A: Not at all. The Academic English Master Program model that Dr. Norma Lemoine beautifully designed has most of many of the elements that we are talking about. The problem has been that as budgets became scarce, the program shrank in its capacity to reach the students it needed to reach.

But we have a great opportunity now with Common Core, which sets very rigorous language standards. We can embed the professional development training that we’ve created through AEMP into the professional development for implementing Common core standards.

Q: Have you been able to study the success of these structures in schools?

A: There is some very good data that indicates the performance of the students I know at 74th St. (Elementary School), which was named as a distinguished school. It’s one of those schools that have had the AEMP program for a good bit of time, and those students are performing very well.

Q: Have you had a chance to meet with either of the candidates, George McKenna and Alex Johnson, who are running to fill the District 1 seat, about your work in this field and the impact these changes could have on those students?

A: That’s something that we are working on, and that will definitely happen soon.


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