Impact Feature Issue on Educating K-12 English Language Learners with Disabilities

Working Together:
One District’s Transformation in Teaching English Learners with Disabilities


J. Valerie Brewington is Coordinator of English Learner Federal and State Programs for the LAUSD; she may be reached at

Karla Estrada is Administrative Coordinator of the Special Education Service Center for Intensive Support and Innovation Center with the LAUSD; she may be reached at

Hilda Maldonado is Director of the LAUSD Multilingual and Multicultural Education Department; she may be reached at

In 2011, the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) addressed the lack of access and services English learners (ELs) with disabilities were experiencing in English language development (ELD). Central to the district’s response was the design of targeted staff development for special education teachers, and collaborative steps by the departments responsible for ELs and students with disabilities.

A compliance review of educational programs for ELs conducted in the district by the federal Office for Civil Rights (OCR) in 2011 concluded that the district’s services and supports for ELs, especially at the secondary level and including students with disabilities, were in need of improvement. Particular areas to be addressed specifically regarding EL students with disabilities were the lack of delivery of both special education services and English learner services (e.g., ELD and access to core content instruction). In addition, access by students with disabilities to EL intervention programs that targeted students not making adequate ELD progress and ELD materials were identified. Recognizing the need to address the educational program for all ELs and for students with disabilities, the district agreed to enter into a Voluntary Agreement in October 2011.

LAUSD’s agreement with OCR included a specific section on meeting the ELD needs of ELs with disabilities. This section of the agreement called for the district to “provide both special education services and English learner services to each EL student in special education in a manner appropriate to the student’s individual needs, regardless of the nature or severity of the student’s disability as defined by the student’s IEP.” The agreement also called for a specific and immediate implementation of professional development for all special education teachers in LAUSD, and a rewrite of the English Learner Master Plan to include ELs with disabilities. In order to address the actions outlined in the agreement, collaborative planning activities were organized between the district’s Division of Special Education and the Language Acquisition Branch (recently renamed Multilingual and Multicultural Education Department, MMED).


In LAUSD, over 45% of students with disabilities are also ELs (over 38,000). The interface between educational programs for ELs and for students with disabilities was going to be critical in meeting language and learning needs of ELs with disabilities. The partnership between these departments generated a cultural shift and an integration of common initiatives began to take shape. The team acknowledged that past practices in delivering both professional development and implementing newly adopted curriculum had been done in silos. It was also determined that a lack of appropriate ELD materials and differentiated professional development were key causes for the lack of services and access to individualized ELD instruction for ELs with disabilities.

Specialists in both departments began to meet regularly in work sessions that centered on improving the language acquisition and English proficiency needs of ELs with disabilities. As the creation of this staff development for special education teachers continued, the team found it challenging to address each of the language domains (listening, speaking, reading, and writing)while still meeting the student’s individual learning needs. For example, how do I teach reading to an EL with an auditory processing disorder when strategies call for the use of listening and speaking activities or strategies? OCR was very clear in informing the district that there is no room for negotiating the student’s rights in both language and learning. Keeping an instructional focus on developing a second language, while also meeting the specific learning needs of an EL with a disability, required those with language acquisition and special education expertise to work through each aspect of the staff development content together. Although this was successfully integrated, the need for more evidence-based methods of accomplishing this integration still remains and requires further research.

Of the approximately 30,000 teachers in LAUSD, 3,000 are special education teachers. Analysis of training attendance data prior to October 2011 for ELD instruction training revealed that most Secondary Resource (750) and Mild to Moderate Special Day Program teachers (1000) had not participated in the ELD instruction professional development provided in the district. The reason for low attendance was that special educators, in particular Special Day Program teachers, typically were not included in the invitation. This was due to a misunderstanding that training of special educators was to be provided by the Special Education Division, and to classroom and student relevance not being experienced by certain special educators attending the training. This revealed the need for inter-office collaboration and commitment between MMED and the Division of Special Education to provide special educators with targeted professional development addressing key content and language acquisition topics, while also differentiating to ensure relevance and meet the needs of special educators.

Data also revealed that elementary and secondary Moderate to Severe Special Day Program teachers (approximately 825) had not participated in district ELD training. Since the learning needs of ELs with disabilities vary, differentiated professional development was created and provided to Secondary Resource teachers, Mild to Moderate Special Day Program teachers, and elementary and secondary Moderate to Severe Special Day Program teachers. This training was co-taught by both EL and special education instructional staff. The two-day professional development for teachers of ELs with mild to moderate disabilities focused on understanding and utilizing the district’s adopted ELD curriculum, ELD strategies, language domains, and appropriate accommodations/modifications for ELs with disabilities.

While the curricular materials for students with mild to moderate disabilities are typically the same as those for general education ELs, the same is not necessarily true for students with moderate to severe disabilities, who may be on an alternate curriculum. Special education and EL specialists were tasked with an immediate identification of curriculum materials and the creation of the professional development for these materials. Additionally, due to the demands of addressing the four domains of language required for ELD, the team had to ensure that the curriculum was designed with both English learner needs and special education needs of students with moderate to severe disabilities in mind. During the search for appropriate materials, an instructional curriculum was identified that was being utilized in classrooms for students with moderate to severe disabilities. Further examination revealed that it was originally developed for ELs. It addressed the four language domains, was primarily picture based, and could be differentiated to meet the multiple learning needs of ELs with moderate to severe disabilities. This curriculum was reviewed and approved by EL and special education specialists, including those of moderate to severe programs. Two-day professional development training was created based on this material and centered on the needs of EL students with moderate to severe disabilities, including students who are low or non-verbal and may use alternate forms of communication. Objectives for the staff development were comprised of evaluating and monitoring ELD progress and proficiency using an alternate ELD assessment, functional communication, learning and utilizing the newly identified ELD curriculum, and application of ELD strategies. As a result of these changes in professional development, approximately 90% of the LAUSD special educators have now participated in the targeted professional development for special education teachers.


Key lessons learned in the implementation of staff development to improve ELD instruction by special education teachers include the necessity for ongoing, differentiated staff development and coaching support specifically targeting how language is developed and acquired, and progress monitored, and strategies and tools to meet ELD needs while considering the impact of the student’s disability. During the professional development roll-out, a common belief shared by many teachers was that disability trumps language when working with ELs with special needs. ELD is a key content area for ELs and necessary for overall academic success. Equally critical to this success is special education supports and services for students with disabilities. For this reason, the co-existence of language and disability needed to be examined and addressed in professional development. This was also evident, and set a precedent, by having the professional development co-taught by specialists in EL and special education. A student’s cultural and linguistic needs do not stop being important once they have an Individualized Education Program, which speaks to an ongoing challenge in the field: We need to recognize that it is not a language vs. disability issue but a language and disability need.

Another critical element in implementing the professional development was instructional and fiscal commitments by department leadership. Instructionally, ongoing partnership and collaboration in policy setting between MMED and the Special Education Division, most recently in the ELD program placement policy for ELs with and without disabilities, is underway. Fiscally, concerted effort has been placed on realigning budgets to support prevention efforts related to monitoring progress and intervention initiatives of ELs prior to being referred to special education, and intervention supports for ELs, including students with disabilities. The Voluntary Agreement served as a springboard for launching this work, but these efforts must be an ongoing district priority.

Through joint efforts by student- centered staff, innovative thinking on how to meet the language and learning needs of ELs with disabilities and transform student learning has occurred. Although the efforts continue, the foundation laid by this partnership will continue to guide the ongoing work.