Tbis post was written by Jamie Fletcher and is a reflection on her visit to Capital Hill advocating for the literacy needs of multilingual learners. Read more about Jamie at the bottom of her post.
As educators, we are often compelled to go beyond lesson plans and grading assignments to help students learn standards-based material. Sometimes, we make classroom accommodations or modifications to the content so students can connect with the instruction. Sometimes, we go beyond the classroom and attend their extracurricular events to connect with the children. Sometimes, we advocate for them and insist on equitable opportunities in the public education system. None of this is new news to those in the education field, however, some students will soon need more than just the effort of dedicated educators.
One of the largest growing demographics in South Carolina is identified as Multilingual Learners (MLs, formerly called English language learners or ELLs). “By 2025, 1 out of 4 children in classrooms across the nation will be an English language learner (ELL) student” (NEA.org, July 2020). Across the US, the growth of MLs has risen exponentially. According to the Office of English Language Acquisition (OELA), from 2000-01 to 2019-20 school years, there has been more than a 400% increase in ML students in South Carolina. As of April 13, 2023, there were 71,727 current or monitored MLs in our state. This means they may receive services from ML educators. Students in SC who are monitored may have met the minimum program exit requirements, but must be monitored for up to four years to determine if services are still needed. Of all these ML students, less than 38% are immigrants, meaning over 62% are US citizens. Meanwhile, from 2012-13 to 2021-2022 school years, there was a 206% increase in vacancies for certified licensed multilingual learner instructors, leading to a possible decline in services and/or an increase in long-term MLs (students who remain in the program more than five years).
One maxim states that “a teacher never knows where his or her influence stops.” So, what happens when teachers unite their voices and ascend Capitol Hill? On June 21, 2023, educators from across the United States met in the offices of US Senators and US Representatives to collectively and positively affect change. The decisions made in those offices and through the votes on the Senate and House floors have a direct impact on funding and policy that trickles down to every public school classroom in America.
Prior to meetings in Washington, DC, TESOL International held their annual Advocacy and Policy Summit in Georgetown, reviewing the policy focus and explaining the impact that personal stories and sincere conversations could have. TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages) educators from Hawaii to Maine and Florida to California collaborated to learn how our states are different and alike and what is needed to offer equitable educational opportunities to all public school students. Carolina TESOL, representing North Carolina and South Carolina educators, attended the summit and met on the Hill to learn more about the process and to develop relationships with the offices of our senators and representatives.
As the SC Advocacy Coordinator, I started contacting DC offices to set up meetings two months prior to the TESOL International Advocacy & Policy Summit. Meetings with elected officials were requested, but sometimes staff members who specialize in education are delegated to speak with visitors. It is important to remember that these staffers are the ones who help advise the senators and representatives when it comes time to vote on policy and appropriations. Once on the Hill, 2023 Carolina TESOL President Tanya Franca and I traversed tunnels and congressional buildings to meet in different offices to share stories about education in South Carolina.
Did you know that South Carolina is one of two states with a complete ban on undocumented students pursuing higher education in public colleges and universities (technical, 2-year, and 4-year schools)? During the meetings on the Hill, Franca and I requested review and support for the 2023 Dream Act (S 365) and US Citizenship Act (HR 3194) to help immigrants seeking a pathway to citizenship, thus providing them with an opportunity for higher education.
We spoke about specific programs that the appropriations would be used for, including after-school programs and professional development for educators of MLs. We also discussed the limitations of higher education in South Carolina. On a federal level, voting for legislation that would provide a pathway to citizenship for undocumented students would improve college and career statistics, as well as graduation rates. Specifically, one student of mine who always planned to attend college moved with his family here in 2013. Beginning his junior year of high school, we were talking seriously about the SAT, ACT, and college applications and that is when we reviewed SC admissions policies. He was offered athletic scholarships and would have received academic scholarships if he was here legally. In 2020, he was accepted to North Carolina Central University where he is a starter on the football team, has the highest GPA of all players, has been nominated and earned many accolades, and is graduating in three years with a Bachelor’s degree in Business. He plans to start a Master’s program next year, but will have to remain in NC to earn the degree. This is only one example of the limitations placed on students in our state and across the country.
During our meetings, our requests for appropriations concerned ESSA Title I to support students from low-income communities; ESSA Title II, Part A to support professional learning for educators and school leaders, and ESSA Title III to improve English language proficiency and academic achievement. Other priorities for the 118th Congress include passing the Reaching English Learners Act (HR 3779) to address the critical shortage of English language teachers, as well as passing the Supporting Providers of English Language Learners Act (HR 460) to increase loan forgiveness for English language teachers.
The summit and Hill visits were meant to provide experience and build relationships. Some meetings were attended by staff members who knew the need for funding and policy updates in education; but in some meetings, we went on to explain connections between the money and the classroom, between investing in education and the cycle of poverty. The opportunities to speak with members of Congressional staff were exciting, but nothing moves quickly in DC. Carolina TESOL will continue to reach out to their offices to offer “boots on the ground” experiences in hopes of positively impacting education for Multilingual Learners. For more information about Carolina TESOL’s federal and state-level priorities in South Carolina, visit https://sites.google.com/carolinatesol.com/home/resources/advocacy/south-carolina-advocacy. Carolina TESOL is committed to advocating for Multilingual Learners (MLs) throughout the Carolinas by informing educators of national, state, and local research, issues, and policies affecting MLs and advising its membership of advocacy resources and opportunities.