Avoiding Civil Rights Violations: Planning for Participation

What’s the plan for participation? This time of year, we begin to make plans for all kinds of things. Holiday events and end of the year celebrations are just a few things we are planning for. We are also planning for the New Year and all that comes with it. This blog is dedicated to the intentional planning for English learners (ELs) to be fully included in school-wide programs, including extracurricular activities. Schools  may be culturally and linguistically diverse, but that does not mean they are inclusive by design.

“Why would they not be included?”, one might ask. The answer is not why, but how: easily and unintentionally.

Scenario: Overlooking Schedules

A group of middle school ELs advocated for themselves by writing a letter to their principal. They argued for a schedule that would permit them to participate in extracurricular activities that were being offered during their ESL block class. The students became aware of what they were scheduled to do while other students had a choice of extension courses. The same could happen with sports programs, school-based clubs, and field trips.

Thankfully, the principal was responsive and was able to make adjustments that afforded the students access to both their language support class and elective courses. Regardless of how their original schedule was set up, what’s important is that the principal was immediately responsive to the students’ request.

If we are not intentional, we could potentially further marginalize certain subgroups of students.

Questions to Think About

  1. What would you do if you were the school leader in this situation?
  2. Does your school offer a chorus, band, or orchestra winter performance? Are ELs included in those performances?

Providing Meaningful Access

The guidance around Providing Meaningful Access to All Curricular and Extracurricular Programs for ELs essentially describes the dual responsibility of district leaders:

In addition to ensuring EL students have access to the core curriculum, SEAs and school districts must provide EL students equal opportunities to meaningfully participate in all programs and activities of the SEA or school district–whether curricular, co-curricular, or extracurricular. (U.S. Department of Justice & U.S. Department of Education, 2015, p. 18)

Think about how core program models are designed to help or hinder ELs’ participation. We will continue to have low numbers of ELs in STEM programs and in advanced classes if they are not being afforded the opportunity to be part of the science, math, or engineering clubs. (See a TESOL Blog post by Judie Haynes, titled, “Do ELs Lack Access to Education in STEM?”)

Questions to Think About

  1. What is our level of intentionality around supporting ELs from participating in all district and school offerings?
  2. What data, qualitative and quantitative, do we have that supports (or does not support) our intentions?
  3. What do we need to do in order to be more inclusive?
  4. If proficiency in English is not a requirement for participation, then how can we become more proactive in assuring access for ELs across district and school-wide programs?

What You Can Do

I once started a book club for girls at an elementary school where I taught as the ESL teacher. We’d meet in the morning, before classes started. My colleague and friend, a speech and language pathologist, cofacilitated the club with me. We didn’t have a strict criteria based on reading level or anything, students just had to be fifth-grade girls who wanted to participate. We set it up very Oprah style, with refreshments and chairs arranged in a circle. I remember us reading parts of the book aloud and having conversations around what the characters were experiencing while we sipped tea or hot cocoa. For just 20 minutes two times per week, we engaged as a community of readers. The EL members were thrilled to be in a book club—and not a remedial reading group; this kind of inclusion not only builds confidence and motivation, but it is a right. The takeaway here is about working within your sphere of influence.

What opportunities can you create to assure your students, especially ELs, have the opportunity to participate? We cannot rely simply on translating newsletters and permission slips, because sometimes the message is lost in translation. There are instances where documents are not translated into less common languages that may be represented within a school. But here is what we can do:

We can continue to develop our skills around advocacy and creating more equitable learning communities.

We can inquire with educators who teach elective courses and/or run school clubs to become more informed about recruitment and participation efforts.

We can make sure that ELs know about and share ideas they have around their own interests, like the middle schoolers did when they advocated for themselves regarding more participation in elective courses.

Without intentional planning, these issues, especially participation in district and school-wide offerings, will continue to perpetuate the myth that diversity equates to inclusivity.

My next blog will focus on students whose parents/guardians waive or opt-out of language support services altogether. We will discuss what that decision means for both the students and their teachers.


U.S. Department of Justice & U.S. Department of Education. (2015). Dear colleague letter. English learner students and limited English proficient parents. Retrieved from https://www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/ocr/letters/colleague-el-201501.pdf

About Ayanna Cooper

Ayanna Cooper
Ayanna Cooper, EdD, is a consultant, author, keynote speaker, and advocate for culturally and linguistically diverse learners. As owner of ACooper Consulting, she provides technical assistance to state departments of education and other clients with the goal of improving outcomes for students. She emphasizes the importance of building capacity to develop and sustain English language programs, use English language proficiency data, and improve instructional practices. She is currently serving on the TESOL Board of Directors.
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