Minnesota: English learners succeed in St. Paul

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at ccat.sas.upenn.edu
Thu Dec 21 14:55:50 UTC 2006

from the Christian Science Monitor, December 21, 2006 edition -

'English language learners' succeed in St. Paul, Minn.

Collaboration between classroom teachers and ELL experts has corresponded
with rising test scores for nonnative speakers.
By Stacy A. Teicher | Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

ST. PAUL, MINN.  A wiggling mass of third-graders occupies the floor space
between two teachers during a lesson on "Hansel and Gretel." When it's
time to split into groups, Concha Fernndez del Rey takes the kids who are
still learning English, while third-grade teacher Sharon Eaton works on
the other side of the room with students at a higher level of literacy.
These children at Prosperity Heights Elementary in St. Paul, Minn., are
using identical work sheets, but they're getting attention that's as
individual as their gap-toothed smiles.

District officials tout their team-teaching model as one reason they've
significantly narrowed the gaps between English language learners (ELLs)
and their native English-speaking peers. Such collaborations between
classroom teachers and ELL experts have corresponded with a steady rise in
test scores for students who collectively speak more than 100 native
languages. Making up 40 percent of the public school district, St. Paul's
ELLs are doing particularly well compared with other parts of Minnesota
and many urban districts in the United States. That has prompted educators
from as far away as Alaska and England to come see what's at work here.
Nationwide, 5.4 million K-12 students speak limited English, and they
urgently need help. Only 4 percent of eighth-grade ELLs scored at or above
"proficient" in reading, compared with 32 percent of non-ELLs, according
to the 2005 National Assessment of Educational Progress. Meanwhile,
classrooms are diversifying with the speed of a spinning globe: 25 states
saw the number of ELLs more than double from 1993 to 2003.

"It's extremely important, as we see a fast-growing population of ELL
students, that we adapt to their needs and give them the tools so they can
be a success," says Bob Wise, president of the Alliance for Excellent
Education, which advocates for at-risk students. "What we're all beginning
to appreciate is ... if this student drops out of high school, there are
going to be immediate costs to all of us." To ensure progress, various
experts call for a number of key changes, such as: Improving tests so
educators can better measure native-language and English abilities, as
well as a student's grasp of academic content.

 Giving all teachers better preparation to work with ELLs.

 Adjusting the federal No Child Left Behind law (which is up for
reauthorization by Congress in 2007) to refine accountability requirements
and support for ELLs.

Lost in translation

Tiny Kao Xiong, poised at Ms. Fernndez del Rey's knee during the reading
lesson, came to the US just two years ago with a wave of Hmong refugees
from a camp in Thailand. Early this school year, he often spoke just one
word at a time. "Adroom, adroom," he said over and over one day, until his
teacher realized he needed to learn how to say, "May I go to the bathroom,
please?" Many in his reading group take literally what they hear in
English. "Can you make a flower bloom?" Fernndez del Rey asks, hoping
they'll mimic the action with their fists. Instead they answer "No!" She
rephrases her question: "Can you pretend your hand is a flower blooming?"
With that, a virtual garden of fingers springs up. "It's kind of like
magic," Fernndez del Rey says of the results she's seen from the
district's push for a streamlined curriculum and team-teaching.  "The
status of being an ELL teacher has been raised."

She suggested a change in lesson plans when Ms. Eaton showed her the work
sheet for "Hansel and Gretel," because she knew many ELL students needed
to master key phrases before they'd be able to answer the questions.
"That's the trust that is built up [between teachers], and it's very
powerful," says Valeria Silva, the district's ELL director. That trust is
created partly through top-down support from principals like Prosperity
Heights's Sharon Freeman, who schedules plenty of planning time for her
four ELL teachers to meet with their respective grade-level partners. Ms.
Silva started the collaborations six years ago. In the past, she says, the
ELL specialist "would pull five or six kids out of the room ... and then
they would come back in 30 minutes and try to connect again with what the
class was teaching.... It was very disruptive."

The new model required adjustments that some teachers weren't willing to
make. Some left the district voluntarily, Silva says, while others were
let go after repeated but unsuccessful efforts to help them try the new
approach. But she believes the new teaching model has been worth the
challenges because it has removed a stigma that many previous ELL students
recall.  Now, Silva says, "the kids see that there is no differentiation,
[no sense of] 'Oh, you have that label and you have to leave to be fixed.'
" The district also distributes curriculum relevant to its multicultural
student body - 25 percent Hmong, 10 percent Latino, and 1.5 percent
Somali. Teachers receive grade-level kits with picture dictionaries,
stories, and activities that reflect each culture. A few of the schools
offer bilingual programs in Spanish or Hmong. Many refugees have had
little or no schooling before arriving in the US.

Outreach to families includes information translated for a Hmong newspaper
and Somali radio station. And there's a college fair for immigrants.
"Education is a huge priority in their lives," Silva says. Problem
revealed No Child Left Behind has highlighted the needs of
English-language learners as never before. By holding schools accountable
for closing test-score gaps between subgroups, the law has largely put a
halt to what experts say used to be common practice: neglecting students
whose scores could be hidden within rosy school or district averages. "The
goal is that we close the gap.... It's revolutionary, but it takes time -
we're changing consciousness; we're changing systems," says Kathleen Leos,
US assistant deputy secretary of education, Office of English Language
Acquisition. Prior to NCLB, she says, funding to support ELLs was not
systematic in all 50 states.

Many teachers are frustrated, however, because they feel like "it's become
less about developing English language proficiency and more and more about
test prep," says John Segota, a spokesman for Teachers of English to
Speakers of Other Languages in Alexandria, Va. Brian Zambreno, the high
school ELL liaison in St. Paul, recalls a math test that included a
section of questions linked to a picture of a pig.  Some Muslim students
took offense at the image and skipped the whole section, he says, so their
scores did not accurately reflect their math skills. NCLB also requires
schools to ensure that all teachers are rated as "highly qualified," but
when it comes to academic subjects, "teachers that can teach a rigorous
course with ELL students [are] hard to find," says Melissa Lazarn, senior
policy analyst for education reform at the National Council of La Raza, a
Hispanic advocacy group in Washington.

Mindful of a range of such criticisms, the Department of Education is
working with states to improve assessments for English language learners.
They must leave the system at age 21 The gaps are harder to close at the
high school level, says St. Paul ELL director Silva. After being with
American peers for a number of years, immigrants sometimes pick up the
attitude that school is boring, she says.  Many are in low-income families
and have to juggle school and work. For older recent arrivals, there can
be too much to learn in the few years before they turn 21 and are too old
for the system.

One choice of high schools here is International Academy - LEAP, designed
for students who have been in the US less than three years. Because some
have never had formal schooling, teachers here have to explain "how to
hold a pencil and how to analyze a chart, all within the same week," says
Sandy Muellner, who teaches biology and a careers class. For those who
reach 21 before they've mastered enough academic skills for college, Ms.
Muellner worries they could be stuck in low-wage jobs for the rest of
their lives. Yet some students progress quickly. Deeq Salad arrived two
years ago from Somalia, where he had just two hours of school a day.
Aiming for a career in architecture, he has passed two of three
proficiency tests needed for technical college.

At Como Park, one of four mainstream high schools here with an English
Language Center for newcomers, ELL teachers like Jodie Russell want to
close gaps not just in academics, but in extracurricular activities, too.
Hmong boys have recently joined several sports teams, and a dozen ELL
students took Ms. Russell's suggestion to check out the Sadie Hawkins
dance. Her class today is working in small groups to answer questions on a
story about a teenage refugee. Roda Abdullahi, wearing a long teal-green
head covering, peers over the work of classmate Lee Hang and smiles
sweetly as she corrects his spelling. The theme of the book, provided by
the district, is courage. "I feel like this is the most exciting job I
could possibly have," Ms.  Russell says, "These kids, they're amazing. A
lot of them have had more than a lifetime of experience in 15 years."



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