Knocking down barriers to success: English language learners
Students present unique challenges to teachers. But those challenges can be exacerbated among certain groups of students who historically have underperformed.
Those groups - ranging from students whose native language isn’t English to those on the lower spectrum of the socioeconomic scale - are a part of what is called the education gap: the academic difference between white students who aren’t from economically challenged families and the students belonging to the historically challenged subgroups.
The Iowa State Board of Education recognized that closing the gap is critical for students - and the state’s long-term success. So 15 years ago, the board created the Breaking Barriers to Teaching and Learning Award, designed to recognize schools that have worked to overcome the education gap.
This year, five schools were honored for their work over the 2015-16 school year. Here, Denison Elementary School of the Denison Community School District explains the work done to ensure English language learners don’t fall behind their counterparts.
Denison Elementary School is situated in the western Iowa town of the same name. Serving students in preschool through the third grade, this is the second year in a row that Denison Elementary has been honored by the State Board of Education for its work with students whose native language isn’t English. In fact, 71 percent of the student population is an English Language Learner.
Where many schools struggle with this student population - statewide only 50 percent of English language learners (ELL) are proficient in math and English – 79 percent of Denison Elementary’s ELL students are proficient in math and English.
So what is it that makes them stand out? Principal Christopher Schulz explains.
What is the guiding philosophy of your school?
Our guiding philosophy is centered on our school motto, “Be responsible, do your best, and help the rest!” Our teachers take responsibility for their teaching, and more important, they take the responsibility for our students’ learning. They do their best by having high expectations for all students, while making sure each student’s individual strengths and needs are supported.
Our students and families make education a responsibility and a priority. Our parent/teacher conference attendance is 97 percent or higher each year, and our families do their part to support high expectations for our students in and out of school. Our students do their best, both academically and socially. Our staff and students buy into our character education at Denison Elementary. Our Denison community is directly involved through our Community Business Partners Program, where each class is partnered up with a local business. Our people understand the importance of good character, and how to make choices that are good for themselves and others. As a result, we teach good decision making and then can maintain high expectations for all.
What particular challenges does your school face?
Many people have misconceptions or judgements about others based on their ethnicity or socioeconomic status. As a society, we often label people based on these external factors, and we may not take the time to get to know more about them as individuals.
A big challenge has been maintaining our reputation as a progressive and high performing school. Your reputation is built on your past experiences and expertise, but it depends greatly on how you take on your next challenge or opportunity. We have gone through many changes, such as multiple federal and state policies and procedures, turnover in staff, and the changing student demographics. Despite what or who is coming or going, we remain focused on doing our best for students. Also, our students do a great job of doing their best, not only for themselves, but also for others. We’ve always been blessed with great staff and students here. What changed over this time was that our people moved from being independent contractors to collaborative teammates. We don’t use the words “my” or “I” as much as we say “ours” and “we.”
Finding time in the school day to plan and work together is always challenging. Our teachers make it a major priority to dedicate time to plan and work together. Our administrators have always built our professional development and schedule around what’s best for our students and staff.
What, specifically, is your school doing to push all-student advancement?
Our building has an extensive Multi-Tiered System of Supports (MTSS) process to measure student achievement. This starts with our Tier One instruction in the general education setting. For math and reading, we use our Universal Screening Assessment (STAR) three times throughout the year to ensure students are achieving at grade level in the areas of math and literacy. Our teachers also look at formative and summative assessment data within their classroom to make informed decisions about student learning and instruction.
Students who are below grade-level benchmarks are discussed in grade-level Professional Learning Communities and Student Assistance Team meetings. Our classroom teachers, working alongside our student services teachers, develop Tier Two interventions to supplement general education instruction. Resources (both human and material) are devoted to provide these interventions within the general education setting. The data collected during these interventions are analyzed regularly to make data-driven decisions.
Students who are not making progress, or those identified through our Universal Screener as in need of intensive intervention, have unique academic interventions. These interventions increase in frequency, duration, and intensity to meet the needs of the individual student.
We also identify students who are above grade level expectations in math and reading, since they also need to be provided opportunities to reach their potential. We identify these students through curriculum pretests, reading levels, and through our district screener. We are providing extended learning opportunities through STEM at grades K-5.
What, specifically, is your school doing to push the advancement of English language learners?
Our philosophy is to implement an inclusion model and support students within the general education setting as much as possible. We are fortunate to have not only great resources, but great people carrying out the instruction for our students.
In our building, we have one teacher devoted to supporting K-5 newcomer students, or students who are new to the United States and to the English language. Two other ELL co-teachers are devoted to supporting classroom instruction for students who are continuing to develop their English language. We have two special education teachers who work closely with our grade levels to provide instruction in the classroom through co-teaching, and to provide the needed support outside of the general classroom. Our title reading teachers help deliver research-based interventions that support our MTSS process. Our K-5 TAG teacher helps provide enrichment and extended learning to those who qualify. Our classroom teachers will group by ability in the areas of reading and math to extend students who demonstrate the need for enrichment beyond the core curriculum. Every teacher in our school, no matter the job title, makes the effort to support our students.
Our School’s Character Education is delivered by all staff members. We have common language and expectations in our school to be trustworthy, responsible, respectful, fair, caring, and good citizens. Students are taught skills to show good character throughout our school and community in our developmental guidance lessons and Second Step lessons, instructed by the school counselor and the classroom teacher.
What advice would you like to share with your contemporaries?
Professional development should be more than just about new programs or best practices. It should be about your people and how they can work together to do what’s best for your students. We don’t always do professional development on ELL. Rather, we focus on best practices for all students, but we make sure professional development has a strand for English language learners and other subgroups. Make sure student data is the driving force of your Professional Learning Communities.
Your school system should adjust to student needs, rather than students needing to adjust to the school. Depend on team collaboration, not independent contracting. This goes for everything from relationships with others, classroom instruction and assessment, to providing professional development. Don’t view students as “your student” or “my class,” but think of the grade levels and school as everyone’s business. The same can be said when you look at your building. Our building is the size of a small school district. Many think we are a huge school, and they are right when you just look at the numbers. However, we view our school like a small community. A community of 800 people would be like a small town in Iowa, where everyone knows each other and works together. Our children are faced with a diversity of challenges and opportunities in and out of our school community. The traditional African proverb states “It takes a village to raise a child.” Our “village” has never been needed or valued more than it is today.