Committed to Serve in 2020: Supporting ELs Who Opt Out

Students identified as English learners (ELs) who opt out, waive services, decline to participate, or simply just say “no”: These are the students we’re going to talk about today. As EL advocates, we often focus on students who participate in language support programs, the teachers who teach them, and the resources they have (or don’t have) access to. But, lately, the question has come up of students who do not participate. What are we doing (or not doing) for them? Even more important is why supporting those who opt out is a necessary action if we are going to be truly inclusive and create and sustain avenues to academic success for linguistically diverse learners.

The federal guidance around serving ELs who opt out states the following:

If parents opt their children out of an EL program or specific EL services, the children retain their status as EL students, and the school district remains obligated to take the “affirmative steps” required by Title VI and the “appropriate action” required by the [Equal Educational Opportunities Act] to provide these EL students access to its educational programs. Thus, the Departments expect school districts to meet the English-language and other academic needs of their opt-out EL students under the civil rights laws (U.S. Department of Justice & U.S. Department of Education, 2015, p. 31)

Respecting parent/guardian decisions around why they decide to opt their child(ren) out of an English language service model is absolutely necessary, but what can we do to assure that, regardless of their decision, we are providing the best instruction possible for the students? In this instance, despite families’ decision to not participate, our school communities must be inclusive of all EL populations.

Scenario: How Many Is Too Many?

A high school offers an English language support model that includes a segment of Spanish language arts and a segment of ESL. The majority of their ELs are Spanish speakers. Approximately half of the students waive their participation. In fact, some of them have been opting out since middle school. School leaders are concerned about this trend and have met with students and their families, individually, to make sure they understand the decision they are making. Despite their efforts, a number of families decline services.

What You Can Do

Think “All In”

The most important thing you can do when families opt out of English language services is respect their decision and understand that it remains your responsibility to help those students achieve academically—outside the program.

Even though opting out is an option, it is still beneficial to build the capacity of all teachers who teach language. (Hint: All teachers teach language.) Making sure all teachers are aware of a student’s choice to opt out of a language support program is imperative to helping teachers understand what is expected of them in regards to supporting both content and language development. This is especially important if general education teachers have no or limited access to the English language teacher. Even if a student has opted out from receiving additional language support, they have not relinquished their rights to high-quality, scaffolded  instruction.  No student should be able to opt out of having a differentiated, culturally responsive education.

Think Data

The next most important thing you can do as a school leader is learn why students may be opting out of the services your school offers. Before we can think about the what, why, and how, we can think about it from a numbers perspective. How many students are eligible for services? How many are opting out? Why might that be? Parents/guardians may be opting out for a number of reasons. Some reasons might be related to their understandings or misunderstandings about what services are offered and the expected outcomes. Ultimately, parents/guardians want to know exactly how their child(ren) are benefiting from participation. How educators offer, explain, and describe available program models may in fact be related to participation and opt-out numbers.

Here are the questions you might ask: Who is responsible for explaining program options to parents and guardians and in what manner. Is this information shared with families individually? In large groups? Is there a brochure? Is the information translated in multiple languages? Is there follow up if families have questions or change their minds? What if they still decide to opt out despite your best efforts? What opt-out rate is considered too high? What’s considered average? Great questions! You’ll know this first by learning what has been the norm for your school or district. If the opt-out number seems too high or has increased over time, think about an evaluation plan to assure there are no gaps or gray areas associated with how students are identified and offered support, and think about how you’ve answered some of the preceding questions. What can you change about how you’ve been offering or explaining the program?

Think Buffet Style

Wouldn’t it be great if we could offer language support services like a buffet, so that opting out would occur much less often? I use this analogy because buffets usually offer something for everyone. Whether you are gluten free, pescatarian, or vegetarian, you can find something to eat on a buffet. Ideally, program models would offer several highly effective options for parents to choose from. What are we offering to linguistically diverse families, and are those options meeting their needs? For example, one particular district offered two choices of English language programs even though their state approved and listed multiple program options. Was that choice due to budgeting, staffing, transportation, or a combination of those factors? Could it be that things have “always been done this way?” If so, what are the consequences of having only two options if ultimately those options leave a number of students out? I recommend checking with district and state officials around approved program models to assure you are up to date with your practices.

Questions to Think About

  • How many ELs in your school/district opt out?
  • What are your thoughts about this number?
  • What are some possible reasons they decide to opt out?
  • Are their teachers aware they have ELs who have opted out?
  • What are the implications, both short and long term, of opting out?
  • What exactly are students opting out of?

All decisions have implications. When a student opts out, what might it mean for their immediate language development, and what might it mean for their language acquisition down the line? When we understand the choices EL families have about what types of English programs being offered, we are in better positions to inform and support their decisions. As educators, part of our job is to assure we are providing what students need in order to be successful. To do this, understanding what they are opting out of and what will need to be done, within our sphere of influence, to support language acquisition is imperative.

Next month’s blog will focus on avoiding segregative practices within service models. Having students participate in language support programs also means assuring their participation does not segregate them from other school and/or district programs.


U.S. Department of Justice & U.S. Department of Education. (2015). Dear colleague letter. English learner students and limited English proficient parents. Retrieved from

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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4 Responses to
Committed to Serve in 2020: Supporting ELs Who Opt Out

  1. This is… brilliant. A very inspirational look at the other side of language services we don’t think about often enough. I’m the host of the podcast All Things ESL and I’m interesting in interviewing you on this topic. Please contact me if you are available to talk. Thank you.

  2. Jennifer Wiebe says:

    Hello! This post got me thinking about the opposite side of this – after a lengthy discussion with parents and students about why they are opting out, if they still choose to opt out, do we have to provide support at all? What I mean is, the family is choosing not to have services, and they (presumably) have to sign something agreeing to that. If that’s what they choose then that’s what they choose, so what if the student is just part of the “general population” and they do not receive any EL support? That’s what the parents are choosing, so since it was provided by the district, does final responsibility fall to the parents? I’m kind of thinking out loud, but I would also be curious as to the thoughts about following the parents wishes and providing no support AT ALL to the student.

    • Ayanna says:

      Hi Jennifer,
      Thanks for posing such thoughtful questions. Over the last couple of days, I’ve also had a number of conversations about this particular blog. In thinking about providing culturally responsive and differentiated instruction, no student should be able to opt-out from that. Regardless of which program model might be in place, general education courses need to be responsive to student needs and learning styles. That is what the “Think All In” part of the blog hints at. How can we prepare all teachers for ELs regardless of if ELs decide to opt in or out of language support programs? How can tier one instruction reach all learners? I agree with you, the decision does fall on the parents. We can respect their wishes, but that decision does not let anyone “off the hook,” so to speak, for the students’ academic success.

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