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Case Study: Sobrato Philanthropies Champions English Language Learners in California

Emphasize systems rather than symptoms.

California’s 1.1 million English language learners comprise 19% of the state’s total K-12 student body in the state, the largest population of its kind in the country. In addition, nearly 60% of children ages five and under in California live in homes where a language other than English is spoken. When they are little, these children bring a wealth of assets entering into the K-12 system with the ability to speak multiple languages. However, once in the K-12 system, they are seen as having deep deficits and are often offered insufficient supports to achieve their potential especially as they learn the English language alongside math, reading, science, and social studies curricula. These young people are twice as likely to come from low-income families and are more likely to drop out of school than their native English-speaking peers. Nearly half of California English language learners who enroll in kindergarten are likely to become “long-term English language learners,” students for whom gaps accumulate as they move through school, with proficiency out of reach.

To address this problem and uplift the assets of this population, in the Bay Area, Sobrato Philanthropies launched a preschool and elementary program, Sobrato Early Academic Language (SEAL), in 2008 in San Jose and Redwood City schools. SEAL provides professional development, curriculum support, and technical assistance for teachers of English language learners. External evaluations proved SEAL’s profound impact, spurring expansion and replication of the model Bay Area-wide and then across the state. SEAL has since spun off to be its own independent organization continuing this work. Expanding beyond this initial program, Sobrato Philanthropies also partners with policy advocates, researchers, student and family engagement groups, and other foundations to take the lessons from SEAL and to support English language learners throughout the State. Acting as a grantmaker and convenor, Sobrato Philanthropies activated a donor collaborative, welcoming other funders to co-invest in advancing equitable opportunities and outcomes for English learner students. Sobrato Philanthropies also worked to raise awareness about policies that generate more resources for schools to serve their English language learners.

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