Children Now Insider: English learners are an asset to our culture, community, and economy

California’s Education System should reflect it.

By Efrain Mercado
Director of Education

Children Now® Insider: Stories, News, And Insights On Children’s Advocacy

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English Learners Enhance the Rich Diversity of California. Did you know1

  • Nearly 42 percent of the children in our public school system speak a language other than English at home
  • Spanish is the primary language spoken by English learners, both across the country and here in California (at nearly 82 percent)
  • 2 million CA children are considered English learner (EL) students, and the majority of EL students – 70.2 percent – are enrolled in kindergarten through grade six
  • English learners speak more than 67 different languages in California!
  • And yet, 93 percent speak one of the top 10 languages in the state, which include Mandarin, Arabic, Punjabi and Russian
  • While California has the largest population (29 percent) of EL students in the country, Texas (18 percent) and Florida (5 percent)

When looking at that data points above, there is no doubt how critical it is to support the academic success of English learners in our schools. The sheer number of students who are English learners, combined with a growing population of young children who are learning to speak a language other than English at home and who will enter kindergarten over the course of the next few years, make it essential to California’s economic and civic future to ensure their success. Plus, English learners have the ability to bring a tremendous asset to our workforce and communities – bilingualism. It is within this frame that we must pursue educational support for English learner students, understanding that developing both their native language and English are beneficial for their own education and for society.

For too long, the California education system focus for English learner students was solely on learning English. In 1998, California voters passed Proposition 227, which required that all public school instruction be conducted in English, effectively eliminating bilingual or dual language classes for students who were classified as English learners. This policy focused disproportionately on English language development, hindering students’ ability to learn other subjects, and marginalizing English learners and their families – increasing the educational divide among students in California.

Fortunately, in 2016, voters passed Proposition 58, which repealed much of the English-only requirements set forth in Prop 227, by allowing bilingual programs in which students could learn from teachers who speak both their native language as well as English.

The damage of nearly two decades of English-only education cannot be undone and the losses, both culturally and to our communities, are immeasurable. Not only did this kind of educational approach harm children’s ability to succeed in school, but it can also cause stress and anxiety among kids. And it can sever an important connection to a child’s culture.

This issue is personal to me. I grew up in Los Angeles and was raised in a bi-cultural family. My dad was a Mexican immigrant, and my mom was white. As a young child, I spoke Spanish at home with my parents. When I started school, though, that changed. English became my primary language – both in class and at my maternal grandparents’ home where I spent my afternoons. I quickly lost my ability to speak Spanish. The language loss is one of my biggest regrets.

I am encouraged that, as a state, we are beginning to take steps to celebrate the diversity of our children and ensure that all students have the supports they need to learn and thrive.

In 2017, the California State Board of Education developed the California English Learner Roadmap: Strengthening Comprehensive Educational Policies, Programs, and Practices for English Learners (EL Roadmap), with a bold vision:

English learners fully and meaningfully access and participate in a twenty-first century education from early childhood through grade twelve that results in their attaining high levels of English proficiency, mastery of grade level standards, and opportunities to develop proficiency in multiple languages.

Designed to strengthen comprehensive policies, programs, and practices for English learners, Pre-K through grade 12, the EL Roadmap focuses on improving the educational system, and the quality of teaching and learning.

In order to fully and effectively implement the EL Roadmap, however, we need to invest in building the capacity of our educators, so that they have the knowledge and skills they need, rooted in their school, district and community contexts, to best support English learners.

Currently, there is a campaign through The Children’s Movement to support funding in the state budget to build this capacity for educators. I urge organizations across the state to participate in this campaign. English learners are a powerful asset to our schools and communities. We must continue to fight for their academic success and overall well-being, and ensure our collective economic and civic futures.

Get involved: show your support

If you are affiliated with an organization, you can sign on to The Children’s Movement letter urging the state to fund capacity-building programs to help educators implement the EL Roadmap.

As an individual, you can help build momentum for this campaign by:

  1. Sharing the campaign on Twitter:
    Take action to improve educational supports for California’s 1.4 million #EnglishLearners! Sign on your org or business here: #ProKidCA #ProNino
  2. Calling or emailing your legislator and telling them that it is critical to fund supports for English learners and urge them to include $12 million for Communities of Practice to support educators in implementing the English Learner Roadmap.

Efrain Mercado is currently the Director, Education for Children Now. In this role he will provide leadership on developing and promoting a system of support and intervention for struggling schools and districts in California. 

Prior to this role he held the position of Senior Policy Director for the California County Superintendents Educational Services Association (CCSESA) and provided policy leadership to County Offices of Education and to the state around standards, assessment, and accountability. Prior to his work with CCSESA he served as the Project Director for the Common Core State Standards at the National Association for State Boards of Education where he worked to help state boards of education across the nation lead and direct policy to ensure fidelity of implementation of the standards and related initiatives. Prior to his State Board work he was the Lead Strategist for the Common Core State Standards at ASCD. In this role Mr. Mercado focused on increasing awareness and support of the standards among K-12 policymakers and educators. He also engaged with states and districts to help identify, develop, and disseminate practical tools and resources for educators to use in implementing the common core state standards at the local level.

Mr. Mercado comes to Children Now with a background in developing partnerships to promote College and Career Readiness for all students. While with ACT, Inc. Efrain worked as a regional consultant and then as the Director of Outreach for the National Center for Educational Achievement (a department of ACT, Inc.) where he worked with state education agencies and school districts to promote and advocate for the use of best practices to achieve College and Career Readiness. He also brings extensive college preparation experience from his previous roles as a master tutor/teacher for the Princeton Review and as the president and founder of Premier Prep, a test preparation and college admission counseling company. Mr. Mercado holds a B.A. in U.S. History from the University of California at Riverside.

A native of California, Mr. Mercado now resides in El Dorado Hills, California with his wife Melanie and their three children, Madison, Sean and Bryant.

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