School districts are currently faced with a tremendous opportunity: to determine how to use $125 billion of federal funding from the American Rescue Plan (ARP) Act to ensure students are equipped with the support they need to thrive after a year and a half of education interrupted by the pandemic. This translates to, for example, an additional $11,144 per student for Los Angeles Unified School District and $4,500 per student for the New York City Department of Education, the two districts with the highest number of English learners in the country.
While ARP specifically requires states and districts to set aside at least 5 percent and 20 percent of the funding they receive to address interrupted learning for students most affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, including English learners and migrant students, they could allocate as much of the remaining 80 percent of flexible funding as they choose toward addressing these concerns. Given the long-standing inequitable outcomes for English learners, including lower high school graduation rates and lack of support for post-secondary enrollment, districts can—and should—consider how to fully support these students and then allocate the necessary funding.
If implemented thoughtfully, ARP funds can help districts adequately support English learners where they have historically missed out on opportunities to allow these students to thrive. But district leaders must keep in mind three principles:
- Collaborate with English learners, their families, and community members.
- Think big—it’s time to stop doing what hasn’t worked and to take on new evidence-based strategies, programs, and practices that center student needs.
- Provide flexibility to students and families to get students back to school, back in classrooms, and back to learning.
Considering the disproportionate burden of the pandemic on immigrant communities, migrant farm worker communities, essential workers, refugees, and linguistically diverse families, state and district leaders should consider their unique needs. Often ignored and excluded pre-pandemic, many individuals within these communities faced systemic barriers in their access to health care, living wages, affordable housing, and quality education, all while providing essential services to their communities throughout the pandemic. The past year and a half has underscored how the inequities these communities face further affected the education of English learners and immigrant students.
There are currently 5 million students, accounting for 10 percent of school-aged children, who are classified as English learners; they are enrolled in 75 percent of public schools throughout the United States and their enrollment is growing across rural, suburban, and urban school districts. This number does not include the millions of exiting English learners, who are proficient in English but continue to face similar challenges as current English learners. During the pandemic, these students were especially hard hit: language barriers, crowded homes, increased home responsibilities including caring for younger siblings and/or earning an income, and limited access to digital technology including one-to-one devices and stable broadband and WiFi connection meant that their transition to remote learning proved difficult. These challenges have translated into higher chronic absenteeism, interrupted communication with families, and lower rates of return to in-person schooling among English learner students, effectively disrupting their education.
Addressing these challenges will require states and school districts to take a targeted approach that considers the needs of linguistically diverse families from the very beginning of their planning process. Many districts have struggled to adequately support English learners, even prior to the pandemic, and now must think strategically about how they use these funds to prioritize their needs. That’s why we’ve identified a set of actions that all school districts should be taking as part of their broader planning efforts around the ARP funding. More information on each of these strategies can be found in our action guide.
- Meaningfully engage linguistically diverse families and communities. If local leaders truly want to ensure that ARP funds are used to build more inclusive and equitable systems than those that existed before COVID-19, they must listen to those directly impacted by decisions made about the districts’ education system—including students, families, educators, service providers, community members, and advocates. For example, Collier County Public Schools in Florida launched specific strategies to bridge the digital divide for migrant students based on feedback from migrant students and families and community partners. Schools within the district also have dedicated migrant resource centers where students and families can go to receive targeted support and mentoring.
- Accelerate students’ learning with targeted support for English learners. EL-specific instructional support must be incorporated into any summer or school-year programming to accelerate learning, including evidence-based strategies such as targeted intensive tutoring and expanded learning time. These strategies must be paired with additional professional development on language development and culturally competent communication for all educators.
- Provide students with socio-emotional, mental, and physical health support. All students deserve to learn in an environment where they receive supports needed to learn, develop, and thrive. That means considering the specific needs of English learners, so that the impact of the additional challenges their communities have faced is mitigated and does not further impede their learning. For example, during the pandemic, California’s West Contra Costa Unified School District used holistic surveys to keep track of English learners’ well-being and provided their families with translated communications on available counseling services. These types of supports should continue.
- Build the infrastructure to support English learners (including long-term ELs and students with interrupted formal education) in the future. While funding from ARP must be used over the next three and a half years, school districts can use this funding to address foundational challenges to support English learners for many years. This includes addressing the lack of consistent and high-quality data about individual students and the supports they are provided, as well as the shortage of diverse educators in many places.