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Column: Sometimes it's 'and' instead of 'either'

District 518

WORTHINGTON -- In the last 10 years the city of Worthington has become quite familiar with the acronym "EL," which means an English Learner. EL refers to a student of any age, who is purposefully learning English through the public school system, adult EL classes, or maybe has even hired a private tutor.

All schools also identify a group of students with significant learning needs, qualifying under special education. These students may have deficits in the areas of reading comprehension, math calculations and writing expression. Sometimes these two groups of students actually become a third group of learners referred to as "SpEd-LEP" students who are students with special needs and are also learning the English language (Special Education-Limited English Proficient). These two types of students are very similar and at times there are concerns about both over-identification and under-identification of SpEd-LEP students because limited English proficient (LEP) students sometimes struggle in learning English. On the other hand, difficulties due to a disability may not be identified as such because the student is a second language learner of English.

As noted in U.S. Department of Education (2002), from 1987 to 2001 there has been an increase from 3.3 percent to 14.2 percent in the proportion of students with disabilities who do not use primarily English at home. Between 1992 and 2002, the LEP student population in grades Kindergarten through 12 has increased 72 percent to 3,977,819 LEP students. Note this number reflects the population in 2002. The most accurate current count was in 2008, which indicated that there were more than 4.6 million students identified as LEP. Considering that data is more than four years old, the number of EL students currently in the United States could currently be more than 5 million. With the continuing increase in the LEP student population, the SpEd-LEP population can be expected to continue to increase as well. There are very real challenges in determining whether second language acquisition or a disability is interfering with a student's success in the classroom.

So how do we teach students who are not proficient English speakers who also have learning disabilities? The answer is, "it depends." There are many different types of learning disabilities, so each student's method of instruction is specifically designed to meet his or her individual needs. The resources are unlimited, and the strategies and tools that teachers use for EL and special education students are very similar and successful in helping students progress in acquiring knowledge. With the use of these strategies, students are capable of learning English -- or any other language that is necessary for them to function in the country in which they live -- and receive special education services at the same time. This is not to say that this is an easy task, yet when all educators involved are well-trained and have high expectations for students, the students succeed.

District 518 English Language teachers, special education teachers, mainstream teachers and all other staff are committed to educating all of our students to the best of their abilities, including our Special Education-Limited English Proficient population.

Dr. Deborah J. Mitchell is EL Coordinator and homeless liaison for District 518.