Larry Ferlazzo

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The Positive Impact Of English Language Learners At An Urban School


(accepted for publication by "Language Magazine")


                                                     By Ted Appel & Larry Ferlazzo


     Luther Burbank High School, Sacramento’s (CA) largest inner-city high school with 2,000 students, and the school with the largest number of English Language Learners in the entire region (over half of our students are ELL’s), recently became one of the few high schools in the nation to come out of Program Improvement (PI) status after having been a PI school for six years.  Program Improvement is the designation assigned schools by the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) if they have not met a number of academic benchmarks.   Approximately forty percent of our student body is Asian (largely, but not exclusively, Hmong, including 200 pre-literate refugees who came to our school three years ago and whose scores are included in NCLB rankings), twenty percent is African-American, and twenty-seven percent is Latino.

     There were many causes for this turn-around, including dividing our school into Small Learning Communities with about 300 students each who stayed together, and with the same group of teachers, for their four-year high school career.

     It’s also important to highlight what we did not do – we didn’t “teach to the test.”  Instead, we specifically focused on developing life-long learners recognizing that while there might be short-term pain in terms of test scores, there would ultimately be long-term gain for students and the school.

     We believe that having large numbers of English Language Learners did not inhibit our escaping NCLB sanctions.  On the contrary, we believe that having to address the needs of our large number of English Language Learners had a very positive impact on instruction for all of our students.  Looking at ELL’s through this asset lens is very different from the deficit lens through which they are usually perceived. 


     All of our teachers have had to learn how to effectively teach English Language Learners simply because all of our classes have significant numbers of ELL’s in them.   Graphic organizers, visual supports, cooperative learning, modeling, and accessing prior knowledge are just a few of the instructional strategies that are used school-wide.

     Of course, all of these teaching methods are effective with any type of struggling student, whether they are struggling because of language or because of some other challenge.

     Our large number of English Language Learners pushed our school and faculty to invest in professional development so that our teachers would learn and refine these skills.  Time and resources have been made for extensive in-service training and peer-to-peer support, including observations and weekly “study teams” where groups of teachers meet to enhance their professional practice.



     As we mentioned earlier, we have been very intentional about not  “teaching to the test.”   We are committed to having our entire curriculum both accessible and academically stimulating and challenging.

     All of our incoming ninth graders, for example, immediately begin to learn strategies and not just skills in their classes.  Someone once said that a skill is knowing how to put your key in a lock and turn it.  A strategy is knowing what to do when you can’t find your keys.   This is emphasized from our Beginning ESL classes to our advanced International Baccalaureate ones.   Because of this school-wide commitment to higher-order thinking development, our teachers need to use effective ELL teaching strategies to ensure that all our students –  ELL and non-ELL – develop this capacity.

     Our ESL program (know in California schools as ELD – English Language Development) has hundreds of students at Beginning and Intermediate English levels.   Teachers and students in those classes initiated educational technology projects (see Language Magazine, August 2007) and international online collaborations that are now not just being considered for replication by other non-ELD classes in our school, but by schools around the world.  In addition, The Write Institute () writing curriculum for English Language Learners was found to be so effective in our ELD classes that portions are now used in a number of other classes on campus.

     Burbank also has an International Baccalaureate (IB) program, and we do not recruit students to participate in IB from outside our attendance boundaries.  We are committed to making the IB curriculum accessible to all our students, including our English Language Learners.



     Social capital, the value placed on trusting and valuable interpersonal relationships, is being recognized more and more by researchers as a key component of a successful school.  Burbank prides itself on the supportive relationships teachers develop with their students, and those that students can develop with each other, through being connected in the same Small Learning Community for four years.

     There are other ways where those relationships are nurtured, specifically connected to English Language Learners.

     A number of our ELD classes have “sister classes” within our school – connections to classes that have more native English speakers.  For example, one ELD class uses a Dialogue Journal, a tried and true ELL teaching tool where students typically write to their teacher and then the teacher writes a response.  Somewhere within that response the teacher includes something the student wrote, but in the correct “ form.”  The idea is that the student will learn without feeling that he/she has been corrected, and will continue to feel comfortable taking writing risks. 

     The difference in this case is that the Dialogue Journal is written to a pen pal in an eleventh and twelfth grade class whose teacher uses it as a component of writing instruction for her students.  Both classes get together periodically as well, and work together on a variety of other projects.

     Burbank has also developed parent engagement programs particular to the needs of English Language Learners.  Working with parents and a local university, one hundred parents, many monolingual in their native language, meet regularly to learn and discuss topics that they choose, ranging from immigration issues to how they can best help their children succeed academically.   The meetings/workshops are run in multiple languages through a simultaneous translation system with headphones.

     In addition, ELL parents and students worked with Burbank staff to develop a family literacy effort where we provide home computers and wireless Internet service to assist in English study at home, which was awarded the 2007 International Reading Association Presidential Award For Reading and Technology.  Finally, hundreds of home visits are made with interpreters by teachers and other Burbank staff each year.



     Hmong for Hmong speakers and Spanish for Spanish speakers are popular classes on campus, and research shows that increased academic mastery of a heritage language leads to higher academic achievement.

     In addition, we have student leadership classes (for credit) both during and after-school that are multi-racial as well also culturally-specific, including Latino/Latina Leadership, Hmong (and Men’s) Women’s Circles, Hmong Cultural Club, and the Pacific Islanders club.  We have similar classes for African-American students.


     We do not have specific data that points to which of these elements have contributed to a larger or smaller degree to our academic success.   However, we can say that our rate of absenteeism compares quite favorably to other high schools, and we can say that we are no longer a Program Improvement school.

     So, we can say we must be doing something right….


Ted Appel is the principal of Luther Burbank High School in Sacramento, California.  Larry Ferlazzo teaches English and Social Studies at Burbank.