Standing Up For Their Rights

Holt adoptive mom Annelise Pierce shares her “been-there-done-that” cheat sheet for how to advocate for older adopted children at school — ensuring they receive the English language education they deserve.

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Put yourself in the shoes of your recently adopted child. With no English language skills, you can’t explain to your new parents how scared, hungry or overwhelmed you feel in your new home. You begin classes at your new school, but you can barely understand the instructions to line up, sit down or raise your hand. The kids are welcoming and try to make friends with you, but unable to understand their words or comprehend their body language, you isolate yourself to stay safe — and soon, the kids stop trying.

Although you are bright and curious, you struggle to understand the concepts that other kids are learning because the language is too big a barrier. Instead, you find yourself using the computer and working on kindergarten worksheets — attempts by well-meaning teachers to keep you occupied and engaged while other students learn the core curriculum.

Welcome to the world of English Language Learners (ELL).  A quick perusal of the adoptive parent message boards online shows how often this theme comes up for new parents of older internationally adopted children. And given that it typically takes older adopted children ten years to catch up academically in their new language, it’s an issue that we parents need to be educated and informed about.

I wish I had known to prepare myself better for the world of ELL, before bringing home two older children within two years. To give you the head start I wish I had, here’s my been-there-done-that cheat sheet in question-and-answer form, for all of you bringing home older kids. Read it, follow the links, contact your school, make a plan and be prepared to proactively stand up for your kids’ rights.  They’ll need it!

What is my role in my child’s ELL education?

Your role is to educate and advocate. I never forget my social worker’s advice: “No one at your children’s school will understand the needs of an internationally adopted older child as well as you do. Educate them.” As an adoptive parent, you face a very high likelihood that your child’s school may not adequately meet all your child’s ELL needs. You need to know your child’s rights and you need to make sure they are provided for. The only ways schools will learn to provide ELL services promptly and expertly is if we, as parents, demand they follow federal and state laws. Just do it!

What should I expect from my child’s new school?

Under Title VI of the Federal Civil Rights Act, all American schools must ensure that ELL students can participate meaningfully and equitably in educational programs despite the fact that English is not their first language. This means the school must identify English language learners — usually through the school registration form — and must then confirm the child’s ELL status through valid state-mandated testing. Where we live, in California, the CELDT test must be administered within thirty days of the child’s entrance in a local school. Other states have similar standards. Check your state’s ELL testing rules through a simple Google search. Insist that your child be tested promptly, as this holds the school accountable for your child’s progress in English language learning. Testing should recur yearly to assess progress.


What are my child’s rights to ELL services?

While ELL laws vary by state, certain rights are mandated for every child in the American school system. Most notably, your child is guaranteed “access” to the core curriculum. This means that the school may not assign simpler concepts for ELL students to study, but must instead provide accommodated ways for them to learn the core concepts that all other students are learning. Schools must also provide ELL services to help them reach grade level in English language activities, such as reading and writing. This is usually accomplished through a regular one-on-one or small group meeting with an ELL provider AND through accommodations made by their classroom teacher. Their teacher must also be certified to provide ELL services during all core curriculum activities during their day. Schools are required to ensure both ELL staff and study materials are funded and available, as well as regularly monitor and assess their effectiveness — demonstrating that ELL students are making adequate progress in language acquisition. The law is clear that inadequate funds, inadequate staff or low numbers of ELL students in the school are not legitimate excuses for failing to provide a quality education experience for ELL students.

Is ELL part of special education?

English Language Learning is an aspect of the core curriculum and is completely unrelated to special education.  If your child qualifies for special education services, those services must be given alongside ELL services, not as a substitute.  It is illegal for ELL students to be treated as special education students.

On the other hand, many children with legitimate special education needs may fail to be identified because they don’t yet speak English.  This is why many language learning experts recommend that internationally adopted children be tested — in their native language — upon starting school, which will help to set a benchmark in their learning abilities. This is especially helpful for older adopted children, who often come without any educational history. If you have any reason to suspect that your child may have a learning disability, do not wait for the school to agree with you. Instead, ask in writing for testing and ask for it in their native language within their first three months home. Schools are required to provide testing in the native language of the student upon parent request.

What if my school fails to provide the ELL services mandated by state and federal law?

This is when you research like crazy.  Make sure you know exactly what federal and state law requires and how what is being provided for your child differs from the law. Next, call your local county education office and ask to speak to the person in charge of ELL services. Tell them what is not being provided, then call the state office and do the same. Use the term “federal civil rights violation” frequently. Let your school know you are in touch with both the county and state offices. Be clear on what you are asking for. Repeat, repeat, repeat.

I’m glad to share that our story has a happy ending.  Both of our older adopted children are enrolled in our local charter arts school, where they now participate in daily one-on-one ELL sessions with a certified ELL provider.  As a result of my active and vocal advocacy over six months, an ELL program has been started at the school — and other children are also reaping the benefits. Our children’s reading, writing and speaking abilities are taking off with the dedicated educational resources they receive. We’re thrilled!

Annelise Pierce | California

Links for further reading and research:

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