ELL Students: Bridging the Gap in our Public School System

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Plyer v. Doe (1982) that undocumented students, including younger adults, have the same right to a public education as a U.S. citizen. As a result of this case, public schools are unable to:

  1. Deny admission to a student during initial enrollment or at any other time on the basis of undocumented status. Treat a student differently to determine residency.
  2. Engage in any practices to “chill” the right of access to school.
  3. Require students or parents to disclose or document their immigration status.
  4. Make inquiries of students or parents that may expose their undocumented status.
  5. Require social security numbers from all students, as this may expose undocumented status.[1]

It is required by all public schools to provide language-assistance programs to “all limited English proficient children.”[2] Why are so many English Language Learners (ELL students) left behind, past and present? Some students have been put into special education programs because they are unable to speak English proficiently. Others have been pulled out of the classroom for individual work such as worksheets or computer work, rather than an inclusive classroom that differentiates instruction.

A major problem we faced and continue to deal with today in our public school system was the isolation of student immigrants.. Heidi Flores, a Bolivian immigrant and former T.C. Williams student describes herself as a “little dot in a big place.” [3] Students immigrating to America have the right to an education but over the last few decades, have not necessarily been receiving the best education they could be receiving. Washington Post staff writer, Pamela Constable wrote an article published April 2, 1995 mentioning the issues Alexandria Public Schools had with ELL students. She includes that “there are more than 20,000 public school students in the District and surrounding suburbs who either were born abroad or are studying English as a second language. About 75 percent are Latinos, and many face similar problems: limited English, cultural isolation, economic hardship and poor or interrupted schooling in their homelands.” [4]

Others in the article discussed how the public school systems separate ESL (English as a Second Language) students for part or all of the day and some offer bilingual instruction. The problem with these Bolivian immigrants like Flores is that they are isolated and may not have received the best education possible. Education programs have changed since the 1990s, and today, there are sites like the Virginia Department of Education that include instructional information for ELL students. Alexandria’s Public School Systems site includes different levels ELL students may be at and more information on that specific level.


Image from the Virginia Department of Education showing resourced for ELL students acpsImage from Alexandria’s Public Schools site showing the performance definition for ELs (English Learners)

In A Nation of Nations: A Great American Immigration Story, Tom Gjelten, writes of two Bolivian young women who have a dream of going to college in the Washington Metropolitan Area.[5] These two girls are an example of how immigrants migrate to the United States for a purpose. When migrating to the United States, these Bolivians and other non-English speaking migrants are labeled as ELL students and are not always given the best education they could be receiving. Some teachers are working on bridging the gap to improve these ELL programs and work on assisting students like Heidi Flores who attended school in a diverse area with many immigrants, feel less isolated. Flores and her fellow ELL classmates have this feeling of isolation causing a potential thought to drop out of school because other people discourage these students from wanting to be successful due to their immigration status. When teachers and administrators in public schools are able to bridge this gap of isolation, students will be more likely to be successful and potentially push for citizenship to have the opportunity to attend college in the United States or apply for a job to further their success.


Image Courtesy of Simon and Schuster

[1] “Migrant and Bilingual Education,” Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction, http://www.k12.wa.us/Equity/pubdocs/ProhibitingDiscriminationInPublicSchools.pdf, published March 24, 2015 (accessed November 8, 2016).

[2] Lau v. Nichols, 414 U.S. 563 (1974).

[3] Pamela Constable, “A New Accent on Education,” The Washington Post, April 2, 1995.

[4] Ibid.


[5] Tom Gjelten, A Nation of Nations: A Great American Immigration Story (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2015).

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