In the district, English-language learners perform consistently lower on standardized tests and drop below their English-speaking classmates.
It’s not a unique problem, and the new state-mandated, locally written Local Control Accountability Plan — a huge document with goals and specific steps to achieve them — forces districts to address the challenges more proactively.
United Parents/Padres Unidos advocated for this position, which was the group’s top recommendation during the LCAP process.
Not only did the Board of Education agree and appoint Ramirez, but Padres Unidos Executive Director Sal Güereña was on the interviewing team.
Padres Unidos wanted a director focused on English learners and parent engagement because the group has learned firsthand that many families don’t know how to connect and engage with their schools, particularly Spanish-speaking parents, Güereña said.
The group provides parent education training at local schools and helps families get involved in district decision-making.
"We know the educational system is a three-legged stool: First, you need the students to be really engaged, and then the teachers and staff of the school, but the third leg is the parents," Güereña said. "If they’re not engaged, if they’re not involved, there’s a problem.”
Ramirez is responsible for developing and implementing objectives for English language arts education, supporting parent engagement programs and improving district-wide support for English learner programs.
The position was cut in 1998 “due to budget constraints,” according to the district, and his salary will be $138,275 for the 2014-15 year.
As of last year, 31.4 percent of the district’s students are English learners, and the majority of those students are Spanish speakers.
“When we’re talking about English learners, the majority of them are not immigrants — they were born and raised here, they’re born at Cottage Hospital,” Güereña said. “But for various reasons, they don’t have the academic language proficiency to pass assessments and be reclassified as fluent English proficient.”
Ramirez has been with the district for less than two weeks, so his main goals are to familiarize himself with the district’s programs that are already in place and see how they are working.
“It will be a challenging transition, and I’m not trying to minimize that in the least,” he said. “But it goes back to the position being very unique, and the team I’m working with is a strong one. They have a common vision and common set of values that are closely aligned with my own, and that’s really important to me.”
The district’s Local Control Accountability Plan goals include getting all English-learner students at the same level as their English-only classmates within five years of receiving instruction at Santa Barbara Unified.
The LCAP is “a very, very progressive and very ambitious plan, and one that is clearly a response to the needs of the community,” Ramirez said.
For the past 10 years, Ramirez worked in districts in Ventura and Los Angeles counties with large numbers of English-learner students, and he is meeting with local principals, teachers and parent groups so he can learn more about the culture of the district and the community
Most recently, he worked as principal at Rio Del Mar Elementary School in Oxnard.
“It’s an exciting time,” he said. “There’s always a lot of nervousness but a positive one, because we’re starting a new year, and it’s a really promising time of the year when you can’t help but be positive about the things to come.”
There is some momentum in the district right now, with more students being reclassified as fluent English proficient from English-learners, and a focus on “cultural proficiency” for teachers and staff members at every school. There have also been gains in English-learner achievement scores.
“(This position) was really needed to provide that guidance and support and coordination,” Güereña said. “With greater rigor in the academic program (with Common Core State Standards), we want to make sure all the students are equipped and prepared, and as long as they remain English-learners, they’ll be hobbled going through school.”
Ramirez, who has a doctorate in educational leadership from USC, entered kindergarten as an English-learner himself.
“I never attended a preschool program but began kindergarten as a Spanish speaker in a fully English class, so it was really full English immersion,” Ramirez said. “I can really recall the challenges at that young age that I had just trying to navigate the classroom, and went through that silent period where I really didn’t say much. It was just about observing and looking and trying to make sense of the classroom.”
As he transitions into the district, he wants to be a strong support for students, he said.
“There are a lot of students who may be in a situation similar to my own, not sure how to navigate the system or what the system is expecting — whether that’s the district or education in general,” he said.
Ramirez can be contacted at the district office at 805.963.4338 x6247 and by email at [email protected].