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Federal guidelines updated for teaching English language learners

The share of Tennessee students learning the English language is growing, especially in Nashville, where nearly 16 percent of public school students are English language learners.

But even as student demographics shift in Tennessee and across the nation, states and school districts are required by law to ensure that non-native English-speaking students have the same access to school programs and a quality education as their peers whose native language is English.

New guidelines, released Wednesday by the U.S. Department of Justice and the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, aim to remind schools of their obligations to English learners. The guidelines are the first update on the issue since 1991 and come as states and districts grapple to provide services to growing populations of immigrants.

“The data we have reflects the increasing diversity of our schools, including the increasing diversity of English learners,” said Catherine Lhamon, assistant secretary for the education department’s Office for Civil Rights. “We know those opportunity gaps [between English learners and their peers] are real.”

Nationally, more than 9 percent of all public school students are English language learners, affecting 75 percent of the nation’s public schools. In Tennessee, 4 percent of public school students are English language learners, while the percentages are growing in urban districts such as Nashville.

The guidelines include information about how districts should identify and assess English learners and what kinds of language assistance those students need. It details how states and districts should avoid unnecessary segregation of English learners; ensure that all students have access to school programs and activities; remove students from programs for English learners when appropriate; ensure that English learners with special needs are identified and receive services; and provide information about programs to parents whose English proficiency is limited.

The Department of Education also released a tool kit with resources for identifying English learners.

Lhamon said the department does not plan to release recommendations about curriculum for districts to use to work with their English learners. “It’s important for districts to be able to select the programs they want,” she said.

Tennessee transitioned to new academic standards for English language learners last year, and Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools has expanded its services for non-native English speaking students in recent years.

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