Magazine article The Learning Professional

In ONE VOICE

Magazine article The Learning Professional

In ONE VOICE

Article excerpt

Mainstream and ELL teachers work side-by-side in the classroom, teaching language through content

Narrowing the achievement gap between students who are native English speakers and those learning English as a second language is one of the biggest challenges facing U.S. educators.

Even as the number of English language learners (ELL) increases exponentially, the No Child Left Behind Act requires schools to make sure those students meet the same achievement standards as their English-speaking peers.

And for good reason, says a school official whose district is succeeding at boosting achievement for ELL students. "Students today need a high level of education to function well in society," says Valeria Suva, director of the English Language Learners department of the Saint Paul (Minn.) Public Schools. "And they need academic English to get a good education."

A GROWING POPULATION

Schools have long had to respond to the needs of non-English speaking students, but never before on such a large scale. In 2003, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, 19% of all school-age children were English language learners. But even that figure pales in comparison with U.S. census projections putting the number of non-English speakers enrolling in school by 2030 at 40%.

For Saint Paul Public Schools, however, the future is now. Roughly 45% of the district's kindergarten students come to school speaking a language other than English. The city of St. Paul has the largest population of both Somalis and Hmong in the U.S., and, along with neighboring Minneapolis, is home to the largest Tibetan population in the world outside of Tibet. The Twin Cities are also experiencing the most rapid increase in Hispanic/Latino immigration of any urban area in the nation.

"It's a huge challenge," says Silva, noting that eight years ago when she joined the ELL department, there were programs for non-English speaking students in one-third of the district's 68 schools. Now, 97% of Saint Paul Public Schools offer ELL services.

"We've had to ask ourselves, 'How are we going to make this work?' " says Silva, whose district, according to the Council of Great City Schools, has made some of the best progress in the country when it comes to closing the achievement gap between English and non-English speakers. "And we decided," she continued, "we needed to look at a completely different way of providing instruction."

With a few exceptions, that's meant abandoning traditional pullout programs in which non-English speaking students are removed from their classrooms several times a week to work in small groups with specially trained ELL teachers. Instead, ELL services are delivered through a collaborative model in which ELL and mainstream teachers team teach. The goal: to teach language through - not prior to - content. As a result, ELL instruction is closely aligned with and integrated into the district's standards-based curriculum.

"Everyone gets the same curriculum and works toward the same standards," says Silva. As a result, everyone also benefits from districtwide reform initiatives, such as the Project for Academic Excellence, a comprehensive reform model designed to transform the way the core skills of reading, writing, mathematics, and science are taught.

Key to the district's success at improving the achievement of non-English speaking students is a professional development program, run largely by the ELL department, that is site-based, authentic, and targeted to individual school needs.

NARROWING THE GAP

By all accounts, their approach is working. Between 2003 and 2005, the gap in reading achievement between the districts ELL and non-ELL students fell from 13 to 6 percentage points, as measured by the percent of students showing proficiency on the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessment. In math, the gap fell from 6.7 to 2.7 percentage points.

The district's ELL students also did well when compared with their peers statewide, outscoring them in each of the last three years in reading and math as measured by the Test of Emerging Academic English. …

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