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.
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.
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.
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 Lazarín, 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.
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."