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IPS Board approves creation of task force to help English language learners

NOTE: Video with this story was created prior to Thursday night’s approval of the plan.

INDIANAPOLIS (WISH) — Indianapolis Public Schools Board members on Thursday night approved a plan to create a task force to assure English language learners won’t feel left behind.

The board first heard about the proposal on Tuesday.

Three IPS leaders want to ensure that students can communicate effectively, understand information, and be understood using the language with which they feel most comfortable: Jessica Dunn, the executive director of enrichment programs; Shon Harris, the manager of equity advancement; and Arturo Rodriguez, the senior English-as-a-new-language coordinator.

They say “language justice” is grounded in respect, inclusivity, and empowering all voices. The IPS leaders also say a student’s preferred language should never be a barrier to the ability to learn.

“IPS is a big district of over 25,000 kids or so, but it has a very large population of English language learners. Currently, our enrollment in that group is way over 6,000. It’s 6,039 students,” Rodriguez said.

Dunn said, “We begin to think about our language justice policy about a year and a half ago. We had gotten requests from parents and students to explore the idea of a language justice policy much like the district’s racial equity policy.”

There’s been a 20% increase in English language learners for the district in the last five years; 33.9% of students are native, non-English speakers with 6% of them fluent in English. Breaking the numbers down even further, 90.1% of English language learners in the district speak Spanish as their first language, 2.3% speak Haitian Creole, 1.2% speak Swahili, and 0.7% speak Arabic, with many other languages in small percentages.

The district has over 50 bilingual assistants teaching Spanish, Karen, and Arabic, and over 90 teaching English as a new language.

For students learning English, IPS also has college and career readiness coordinators and a family and community engagement liaison. These educators focus on Spanish, African languages, Dari, and Haitian Creole.

IPS communicates news and information into English, Spanish and the other languages thanks to Propio Language Services.

Rachel Santos, director of education policy with the Indiana Latino Institute, says the nonprofit partners with IPS. The institute thinks IPS is going in the right director to help English language learners. Santos wants school across the state to have the same type of effort. “Without actual policy in place to hold school leaders accountable for the supports that they provide students, then that’s where we see inequities.”

Lara Christoun, a visiting clinical assistant professor with education and policy for IU Bloomington, applauded the district for including stakeholders. “Too often we have policies that are more of a top-down, and the intentions are great but they’re not actively communicating with the parties that are directly impacted.”

IPS next semester plans to establish a “language justice task force” to create administrative guidelines and continue to help teachers. The district says the task force would include “classified staff,” school leaders, teachers, families, students, and “community partners.”

News 8’s Gregg Montgomery and Daja Stowe contributed to this story.