• View Our Blog • Member Login / Register

How Small Boards Can Make A Difference For ELLs


Staring At A Blank Slate:  How Small Boards Can Make A Difference For ELLs

By Kaila O’Callaghan


Like many boards across the province of Ontario, the Algoma region, particularly the city of Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, Canada,  has been faced with a rapidly changing demographic and we have recently found ourselves supporting exponential growth in our ELL population across many of the schools throughout the district. Given the changing face of our schools and the unique gifts and needs of this student population, we felt compelled to begin to create programs, policies and procedures that would make learning accessible to everyone. This, of course, was and continues to be a difficult call to action in a small board where ELLs make up a growing, but still relatively small portion of our population. Creating programs and supports with limited resources that need to be  stretched over a wide area can be a creative challenge. 


That said, it is possible. Since 2016, our board has implemented a registration procedure that requires initial assessments and family interviews for all incoming ELLs. We’ve worked with all our administrators and teachers of ELLs on their understanding and use of STEPs. We’ve presented our work at Celebrating Linguistic Diversity Conference (twice!) We have two elementary itinerants supporting our ELLs and a grade 6-8 ELD class. One of our high schools offers an ELD program with credit classes for math and English and another provides ESL credits, and our board is actively growing a new international program. It’s been a busy four years! We are by no means finished our work, but we feel like we’re off to a good start.


A blank slate can be a real challenge, but it can also be an incredible opportunity, so when I think of boards like ours who are currently in the place we found ourselves a few short years ago, I can recommend some vital steps in starting the journey to shift the culture so that they can provide programs, policies and procedures that recognize and enhance the experience of English Language Learners:


1.  Get By With a Little Help From Your Friends…

Network. Network. Network. We would not be anywhere close to where we are without the connections we have made across the province. So many boards and their teachers were instrumental in supporting our learning. A great thing about the ELL community of educators is that it is really quite small and also incredibly welcoming. We visited boards and programs, we asked questions, we borrowed materials and resources, we called everyone, and we invited them to visit us. That blank slate came in handy because it enabled us to build off of the work of other boards, to take what worked and didn’t work for them and to pick and choose the models and resources that made the most sense for our context. Join ERGO, find out who the ELL coordinators are at various boards, learn the contact details of your Ministry Education Officers and add them to your speed dial. 


2. Make a Plan, Have a Vision, Start at the Start…

When we first started trying to map out all of the needs of our system in supporting ELLs, we found ourselves overwhelmed at the long to-do list that we eventually came up with, but we sat back, took a breath and decided to start at the start– which happened to be the first thing we do when any new ELL comes to our board – our welcoming process. We began by clearly defining what that would look like for our board and that was vital. For us it involves a clear registration process that includes an assessment team that administers initial assessments, supported by transition to school support prior to any ELL starting at any of our schools. This was vital and  it now means that no ELL enters our system without being recognized, welcomed and being provided the appropriate supports. From there we were able to use this to guide our work with administrators in creating awareness around this population of students, and later, when we moved on to working with classroom teachers, the results of the initial assessments and placement on STEP became a necessary part of our ongoing conversations about instructional supports and modifications for ELLs. 


3. Advocate and Collaborate…

At the end of the day, we have only been able to move forward because of the incredibly supportive senior administration team at our board, who each continue to recognize the ways in which English language learners and their needs intersect with all aspects of our system. ELLs are a small piece of their much larger puzzle, so we had to advocate for this particular group of students, for sure. And that advocacy involves the ability to deeply understand what ELLs need to thrive in our education system, how our policies and procedures support that and what barriers stand in the way. We learned about where funding comes from for ELLs. We lived in the English Language Learners Policy document. We asked a lot of questions. We worked with folks in the transportation department and secretarial staff and administrators. We worked with community partners and volunteers and families and of course, classroom teachers. In working with every group, it’s important to be able to articulate why this work matters and what it means. And if you’re in a board where the ELL population has typically been underserved, recognize that it will take time to change mindsets and historically entrenched practices. Be tireless in your advocacy. 


Keep In Mind That...

Creating programs, policies and procedures that support the gifts that our English language learner populations bring to our schools can be a daunting task when just starting out because it requires a fundamental shift in many of our historical practices. It requires looking at things differently, questioning the status quo and getting creative with our resources.  But it is so necessary. When we recognize this particular group of students and their unique strengths, gifts and needs, our schools become richer places of learning for all of our students - we open up opportunities to think about how all students learn best, we challenge our old ways of thinking and doing and we begin to create spaces that value multiple ways of seeing the world.


What will you do with your blank slate? 



Kaila O’Callaghan has been a classroom teacher for over 20 years. Her passion for learning and languages has brought her all around the world. She started her career teaching ELLs in Barranquilla, Colombia before moving on to work with struggling adolescent readers and writers in a vocational school setting. During that time she trained as a Language trainer throughout the United States. In 2010, she completed her MA in Applied Linguistics at University College Cork, Ireland, her dissertation focusing on striving adolescent readers.  She has served as the Secondary Literacy Lead for the Algoma District School Board and is currently the ELL Coordinator for the ADSB. She has presented her work at a number of conferences including OTR, Reading for the Love of It, and Celebrating Linguistic Diversity. She is also a member of the ADSB e-learning team that won the 2016 Ken Spencer Award for Innovation in Teaching and Learning for their work transforming online learning spaces. She’s the proud mother of a curious 8 year-old and wife to a charming Irish man. In her spare time, she travels as much as she can  and soaks up as much music and theatre as possible.



RSS icon Facebook icon Twitter icon LinkedIn icon

ESL/ELD Steering Committee


By Naomi Lawerence, YRDSB


Why a Steering Committee?

The York Region District School Board (YRDSB) is situated just north of Toronto. We are the third largest school district in Ontario, with over 124,000 students in 180 elementary schools and 33 secondary schools. Students and families in YRDSB speak 119 different languages.  Currently, we have a total of 34,775 students who are acquiring English as an additional language in our Elementary and Secondary schools.


Over the years, our school board has put many intentional programs and services in place to support multi-language learners and their families.  Recognizing that change is complex and requires a system-level approach, our board has developed strategies aligned with system priorities and goals that address the needs of our most marginalized and underserved students.  

These priorities and goals are outlined in our Trustees’ Multi-Year Strategic Plan and the Director’s Action Plan (DAP). A shared vision of English language learners as more than “learners of English”, but as capable and competent individuals with many strengths, lived experiences, and intersecting social identities, is at the centre of our educational efforts. The development of the ESL/ELD Steering Committee was timely, in that it supports specific DAP goals related to Equity and Inclusivity by encouraging all stakeholders to:

  • Develop an understanding of how power and privilege operate in schools and workplaces to advantage some and disadvantage others
  • Engage in learning about marginalization and its impact, both historically and currently
  • Use available data including student voice to actively seek information about marginalized students in order to inform school and system level programs and practices
  • Demonstrate understanding of the importance of knowing our learners through Culturally Relevant and Responsive Pedagogy (CRRP)
  • Review existing policies, programs and practices in order to identify and address inequities and disrupt barriers to learning

Last school year, in support of system-level data collection, we established the first ESL/ELD Steering Committee in YRDSB in order to better understand the experiences of students and staff.


The goal of the ESL/ELD Steering Committee is to provide a formalized, system-level opportunity for multiple voices and stakeholders to notice, name, and interrupt barriers to students’ success and well-being as they continue to acquire English as an additional language.  


Through an anti-oppressive lens, the committee has collaborated to provide system direction to support inclusive and equitable learning opportunities for multi-language learners, Kindergarten to Grade 12.   This is an established committee, with rotating membership every two years. The current group has met four times over seven months, and their feedback and collective efficacy have supported the launch of a larger board ESL/ELD System Review, supported by our Research Services department.


Considerations for Membership


Who might you invite to participate in a  steering committee? 


Recognizing the diversity of our geographically large school board, it was critical for us to seek membership from a variety of school communities and stakeholders.  As such, the following groups are represented on the YRDSB ESL/ELD  Steering Committee:


School Principals and Educators:  Eight school teams (4 Elementary and 4 Secondary), made up of administrators and educators across our 4 geographic areas. ESL/ELD teachers in these schools are part of the school leadership team. 


Superintendents: A minimum of one area Superintendent of Schools and/or the Superintendent of Curriculum & Instructional Services.


Federation Partners:  A member of the Elementary Teacher Federation of Ontario and a member of the Ontario Secondary School Teacher Federation.


Regional Staff:  Consultants/principals from the ELL team, Inclusive Schools and Community Services, Math, Guidance, Research and Assessment Services, First Nation Metis Inuit team, Reception Centre, School Settlement Services, Special Education, as well as International Education.



Goals of a Steering Committee

The group developed Terms of Reference that outline membership roles, timelines, as well as goals of the committee. Some of our committee goals include:

  • Enhance collaborative relationships with multiple stakeholders and together explore the knowledge, mindsets, behaviours, and skills needed to identify and build upon system strengths and eliminate barriers related to the success of English language learners
  • Build upon the Ministry of Education 2007, ESL/ELD Policies and Procedures for Ontario Elementary and Secondary Schools, Kindergarten to Grade 12, while providing the unique contextualization required to champion the strengths and assets of staff, students, families, and communities in YRDSB
  • Continue to build on school-based approaches to develop aligned system-level structures to supporting multilingual learners, through ongoing reflective practice and dialogue
  • Mobilize research and share evidence of promising practices to support the achievement and well-being of students acquiring English as an additional language (socially, linguistically, academically)
  • Provide recommendations to streamline and enhance current board initiatives and inform ESL/ELD related policy, procedures, structures and/or programs


“Think Tank” Discussion Process


What are the best ways to maximize the short meeting times with the committee?


To address this, we developed a structure to elicit feedback and solution-focused recommendations.  For a portion of every meeting, we divide the committee into smaller groups. Depending on the topic for discussion, sometimes these groupings were “like roles” (e.g., all administrators together, ELL teachers together, etc.), other times they were heterogeneous groupings.


Outlined below is a structure that helped us notice what was working in our board, identify barriers, and make recommendations to address these barriers in the form of policy, procedures, practices at the classroom level, school level and system level. 


  1. Individual think time is provided prior to moving into smaller groups. A 3-column organizer is provided to each member in order to record their thinking independently in relation to the topic/issue. They bring this organizer to their think tank.




  1. In these groups, we assign a conversation facilitator and a recorder. The facilitator is provided with discussion prompts and ensures that every voice around the circle is heard. They also jot down key points shared by the group on the same 3-column chart paper.  The recorder documents additional details of the conversation in a shared google document that is accessible by the entire steering committee. Below is an example of notes recorded in column 1 of the chart paper organizer.


  1. We consolidate the Think Tank with a brief whole-group share back, to ensure that members are able to hear what was discussed in other groups and ask questions. Each small group identifies a spokesperson who will share 1 - 2 key reflections and recommendations from their group. 


We recognize that this is complex work and it’s critical to take a system-level approach. Many of the recommendations gathered from our ESL/ELD Steering Committee thus far have been shared with our Board’s Senior Team, Executive Council, and Staffing Committees who require this information to support the development of ESL/ELD programs and policies.  


If your board is hoping to re-envision practices related to the academic success and well-being of English language learners and their families in your school board, you may find that establishing an ESL/ELD Steering Committee is a great place to start.


Naomi Lawrence has been an ERGO member for several years and greatly appreciates the collective voice and efficacy of this provincial association. She is also grateful for the opportunity to be a part of the ELL team at the York Region District School Board. Feel free to connect with Naomi at [email protected]


Add a Comment
RSS icon Facebook icon Twitter icon LinkedIn icon


ERGO Member
Name: ERGO Member
Posts: 12
Last Post: March 4, 2022
ORNG Members
Name: ORNG Members
Posts: 3
Last Post: April 21, 2021