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Young Latina student smiling in the classroom at her desk

English Language Learners

Bilingual Students With Disabilities Get Special Help

There are many children who are eligible for both special education and English as a Second Language instruction, but few models exist for how to serve these children well. Learn about a program in Clark County, Nevada in which dually trained teachers provide overlapping instruction to meet both these needs.

Ruth Lawrence pauses repeatedly by the desk of Fernando Tapia during an activity in which her 5th graders are illustrating on maps where American Indian tribes originally lived.

“Where are the notes that you wrote?” Ms. Lawrence asks Fernando on a visit to his desk at Elaine Wynn Elementary School here. The boy doesn’t produce any, so she sits down next to him and shows him where information about Indians appears in his textbook.

The 10-year-old peers at his outline of the United States while tapping his pen on the top of his head. He labels the states of Washington and Oregon on the map and sets down the names of two tribes. But then he’s up out of his seat to sharpen his pencil. He continues to sharpen it until Ms. Lawrence addresses him from across the room: “Fernando, it looks nice and sharp now.”

Fernando just recently learned English, and he has a learning disability and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Helping him focus on schoolwork in a class of 27 students is a challenge for Ms. Lawrence. But she welcomes him in her classroom.

She backs a program in the Clark County, Nevada, district that aims to keep students such as Fernando, who are English-language learners and also have disabilities, in mainstream classes for as much of the day as possible. The students also get help through bilingual special education teachers for part of the day.

The 246,000-student Clark County school district, among the nation’s largest, is one of the few districts in the country that provide through one program – and dually trained teachers – overlapping English-acquisition and special education services for students.

But the school system, which includes Las Vegas, has a lot of company among districts in enrolling a lot of students who are eligible for both kinds of services. Districts that have seen large influxes of immigrant students are also likely to have received a small but significant number of such students with disabilities.

An estimated 184,000 of the nation’s 2.9 million students enrolled in programs for English-language learners have disabilities, according to the U.S. Department of Education. Many districts are just starting to think about how best to teach such students, and some may eventually opt for a two-in-one program similar to the one here.

“The [Clark County] school district is on the cutting edge of trying to address the needs of the Hispanic community,” said Ben Montoya, the principal of John C. Fremont Middle School, one of the district schools with a resource room for bilingual special education.

The Las Vegas region has attracted throngs of immigrants, particularly Hispanics, seeking jobs in hotels and casinos. Many are hired for such work as vacuuming carpets and cleaning bathrooms. “It’s putting food on the table,” Mr. Montoya said.

Compounding factors

Teaching English-language learners with disabilities is a huge issue that many school districts haven’t given much thought to, said Joy Kreeft Peyton, the vice president of the Center for Applied Linguistics, a Washington-based research organization.

The center expects to publish its first book on the subject in April. It’s titled English Language Learners With Special Needs: Identification, Placement, and Instruction and is edited by Alfredo J. Artiles, an associate professor of special education at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn., and Alba A. Ortiz, a professor of special education at the University of Texas at Austin.

The book notes that English-language learners are often placed in classes inappropriately. Sometimes, they are assigned to special education classes when they have no disability. Other times, they’re placed in regular classrooms when they have a disability, but aren’t given the extra support they need to keep up with their classmates.

One tendency among school districts that Ms. Ortiz called “alarming,” is to try to prevent possible misdiagnoses of English-language learners by delaying evaluation of them for two or three years. “Districts take the safe position and say, ‘If we wait until the student speaks enough English, we’ll be better able to evaluate him or her,’” she said in an interview. “But if the student truly has a disability, we’ve wasted two or three years of valuable intervention time.”

Sometimes even when English-language learners are accurately identified as having disabilities, school districts erroneously conclude that it’s fine to give precedence to their disabilities and not address language barriers, she said.

Lourdes Negrón, the bilingual special education teacher at Fremont Middle School here in Las Vegas, considers her job to be multifaceted.

“You have to deal with the cultural issues, the language issues, and the disability,” she said. “Sixty percent of the parents [of bilingual special education students] are illiterate in their own language. English skills among parents are nonexistent. It gets a little complex when you compound factor upon factor.”

During 1st period on a recent school day, she and a bilingual teacher’s assistant are guiding 10 students in a variety of learning tasks. Ms. Negrón helps three students – who all read and write in English – get started in taking a test. Her assistant reviews spelling words with several other students, who are making the transition this school year from reading and writing in Spanish to doing the same in English.

“¿Qué quiere decir ‘black?’” the assistant asks the students in Spanish. What does “black” mean?

“Negro,” she tells them, and then she adds in English, “You want to write it down so you don’t forget.”

Another boy, who can’t read in Spanish or English, is studying colors. He has colored a dog brown and a pig pink on his worksheet. Yet another boy, a recent immigrant who arrived at the middle school level without any schooling, is writing simple sentences in Spanish and showing each one, after completing it, to Ms. Negrón.

“He’ll come with every sentence,” Ms. Negrón notes to a visitor. “He needs reassurance. He needs that feedback.”

Like all of the teachers in Clark County’s resource rooms for bilingual special education, Ms. Negrón is fluent in Spanish and English and certified to teach special education – she has a Ph.D. in the field. Ms. Negrón is also one of many of the bilingual special educators here who have either an endorsement in bilingual education or English as a second language.

Such dually trained teachers are a scarce resource in most districts, and few universities have programs that produce such teachers.

A special calling

The special Clark County program is administered by a district-level unit, called the English Language Learners Programs for Students with Disabilities Department, now in its fourth year. About 8 percent of the district’s 38,000 English-language learners have been diagnosed as having disabilities.

Francis Jaramillo, an administrative specialist for the district who has headed the department since its formation, and his wife, Yolanda Jaramillo – the bilingual special educator at Wynn Elementary – were recruited by the Clark County district five years ago from New Mexico.

A “power couple” in the field of bilingual special education, Mr. Jaramillo was then the assistant state director of special education for the New Mexico education department, and Ms. Jaramillo was a bilingual special educator in an elementary school.

Mr. Jaramillo feels he has a personal calling to work with people with disabilities, which he identified as a junior in high school after visiting an institution for youths and adults with severe intellectual disability near his hometown of Belen, N.M. After earning a master’s degree in special education, he returned to work for that institution. Among his tasks was helping people learn how to swallow.

“What grabbed me was the realization that we are very fortunate people, and we take a lot for granted,” he said. “There’s a need for people to help the special people out there and advocate for them.”

It’s Mr. Jaramillo’s job here in Clark County to oversee 14 resource rooms that serve Spanish-speaking students who have disabilities. It’s taken a certain amount of advocacy to keep the bilingual special education program going, Mr. Jaramillo said, because of opposition among some people in the school community to bilingual education in general.

In many of the resource rooms, teachers use English primarily for instruction and use Spanish only for reinforcement or clarification. But some of the resource rooms use a more traditional bilingual education model, in which students are first taught academic subjects in Spanish and then undergo a transition into learning in English.

Mr. Jaramillo said he responds to critics by demonstrating that students are progressing academically and continuing to move into mainstream classes.

He said the district struggles with a constant backlog of students awaiting evaluation. But Clark County has overcome some issues of testing English-language learners by using bilingual psychologists and drawing on a pool of interpreters from the district’s translation services, which Mr. Jaramillo also oversees, for evaluations. The district has eight bilingual psychologists on staff.

Administrators for the Clark County schools emphasize that bilingual special educators use Spanish not only to help students reinforce what they learn in English, but also to converse with parents.

Talking with parents

“What makes our program so much nicer is the ability of the teachers to communicate in Spanish,” said Sherry Lizotte, Wynn Elementary’s special education facilitator. Many parents of the school’s special education students who are English-language learners haven’t had much exposure to special education, she pointed out.

“You have to take those extra steps of explaining what you want to do,” she said.

In Mexico, the country of origin of many Clark County immigrants, special education is nonexistent in many communities and isn’t comprehensive in others.

Rosa Negrón, a bilingual special educator at Rancho High School in Las Vegas, said she sometimes encounters students from Mexico with disabilities who haven’t gone to school at all. More commonly, they’ve attended school but gotten stuck at the 3rd grade, when they had trouble mastering the material and weren’t promoted along with their peers, she said.

Once in her classes, they learn under a firm but kind hand that always pushes them to take school seriously. If they don’t, Ms. Negrón doesn’t hesitate to get in touch with their parents.

“If they are sick and absent, I call home to find out why,” she said. “The parents answer well with me.”

At Wynn Elementary, Ms. Jaramillo also works closely with parents.

For instance, when Fernando’s mother, Gloria Ramirez, dropped by recently, Ms. Jaramillo asked her to encourage Fernando to review spelling words on Thursdays for a test that falls regularly on Fridays.

Ms. Ramirez, speaking in Spanish, said she especially appreciated the bilingual aspect of the program her son participates in. She added that she was satisfied with her son’s academic progress.

Fernando was born in the United States, but he couldn’t speak English or read when she enrolled him in Wynn Elementary three years ago, she said. Now, he’s reading well. In three years’ time, he’s also moved from spending about half his time in the regular classroom to 80 percent of his time there.

This school year, Ms. Jaramillo is working with Fernando for about 40 minutes daily in his regular class in addition to teaching him individually for the last hour of each school day in the school’s resource room for bilingual special education.

In a recent one-on-one session with Ms. Jaramillo, Fernando was easily distracted while working with the bilingual special educator in the same way that he was in his regular class with Ms. Lawrence. When it came time to read, he feigned a scratchy throat. While calculating mathematical sums, he paced the floor before writing down each answer.

But unlike Ms. Lawrence, Ms. Jaramillo didn’t have 26 other students to help at the same time, so she could more immediately bring Fernando back to the task at hand.

Unanswered questions

Francis Jaramillo says “there are no easy answers” on how best to serve children with both limited English skills and disabilities.

He has tapped in to research on such students by staying in touch with Leonard Baca, a researcher at the University of Colorado at Boulder, and Ms. Ortiz of the University of Texas. Each of them has visited Clark County schools to talk with teachers about effective educational techniques.

But the research is helpful in the classroom only to a point, Mr. Jaramillo said. “What works for one child may not work for another child,” he said.

Ms. Negrón, the bilingual special educator at Fremont Middle School, expressed similar sentiments. “The more I know about this and the more experience I have, the more questions I have,” she said.

She has developed approaches for working with Spanish-speaking special education students, such as teaching them first to read in Spanish and then helping them make the transition into English.

But she struggles with how to help some students who don’t progress well along that instructional course.

Surveying her bilingual special education students, Ms. Negrón asked: “Where are these kids coming from? What is going on that they’re not learning? How do you get to middle school and not know how to spell your name? What do you do in elementary school for five years?”

“There are some answers,” she said, “that are nowhere.”


Zehr, M. (November 7, 2001). Bilingual Students With Disabilities Get Special Help. Education Week, Copyright © 2001. Editorial Projects in Education, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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