'English language learners' succeed in St. Paul, Minn.
Collaboration between classroom teachers and ELL experts has corresponded with rising test scores for nonnative speakers.
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 Fernández 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.Skip to next paragraph
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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.
Tiny Kao Xiong, poised at Ms. Fernández 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?" Fernández 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," Fernández 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.