English Language Learners find success in Saint Paul Public Schools

TheSaint Paul Public Schools district (SPPS) has the largest enrollment ofEnglish Language Learners (ELL) in the state of Minnesota, with 40% ofall students receiving ELL services. St. Paul's ELL studentshave tested higher on the Test of Emerging Academic English thanstudents in the rest of the state for three years. They have alsonarrowed the math and reading achievement gaps between ELL and non-ELL students in St. Paul each year.

Managing 113 different languages and dialects, the school district approaches the ELL program with a combination of common sense and creativity. Ninety-six percent of SPPS studentsspeak one of the most widespread languages, which include English,Hmong, Spanish, Somali, Vietnamese, Burmese/Kare, Amharic(Eritrea/Ethopia) and Oromo (Kenya/Ethopia).

Once referred to as “ESL” (English as a Second Language), present-day programs are now called ELL (EnglishLanguage Learner) programs, which refer specifically to the use orstudy of English by speakers of other languages. (The name changerecognizes that, for many students, English is actually a third orfourth language.) The district has approximately 250 licensed ELL teachers and 105 bilingual educational assistants.

Valeria Silva, formerly SPPS Director of English Language Learner programs, is one of the reasons the ELL programhas made such advances in recent years. Silva was awarded the 2007University Council for Educational Administration (UCEA) Excellence inLeadership Award in April of this year and was promoted to the ChiefAcademic Officer for Saint Paul Public Schools last winter.

In January of this year, 19-year SPPS veteran Heidi Bernal, took over as the Interim ELL Director and her position became official in June. When asked about which elements of the ELL program make it so successful, she stated, “The collaborative model of pairing classroom and ELL teachershas been an important piece – it sets up an effective teachingenvironment. In the classrooms, we try not to interpret, we teachthrough visual aids and “realia”, a word that essentially means realthings such as maps, pictures and objects. [The approach] is just goodteaching and it is critical for ELL students.”

St. Paul's ELL program was officiallylaunched in 1975, when 60 Southeast Asian refugees were taught througha special intensive English program called TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages). The ELL populationswelled in the early 1980s when large numbers of Hmong refugeesresettled in the Twin Cities area. The population has tripled since1985, the year that the average mainstream teacher began working in thedistrict. In other words, the student population of SPPS has undergone a dramatic transformation during the tenure of most SPPS teachers.

The Office of Academics has developed and expanded a number of programsto support the unique and varied needs of English language learners.Incoming students have had many different experiences with education,culture, and family. Some can read and write in their first language,while others have had little or no formal education or have spent mostof their lives alone or with their families in refugee camps.Additionally, some were born in the U.S. andlive in close-knit communities where everyone speaks a specificlanguage such as Spanish or Vietnamese and have had little experiencewith English.

In the late 1990s, ELL programs in SaintPaul Public Schools began to shift away from the previously dominant“pull-out” models, which drew individuals or small groups of studentsout of the classroom to work with language specialists. Students wouldreturn to the classroom, and then re-acclimate to the activities thatwere already taking place.

Now, when students arrive in Saint Paul, they are evaluated at theStudent Placement Center, and are tested and scored from 1-5 (with 1being low, or having the least English language abilities). Based ontheir assessment, elementary school children may be sent to one of 14Language Academies in the district. Middle and high school studentswill go to one of the secondary schools designated as English LanguageCenters (ELC). The secondary school programs help ease the transitionfor newcomer students while allowing them to work toward graduationstandards. ELC students spend most of theschool day in intensive language classes, while they study subjectssuch as geography, science, health, and math.

The implementation of the Language Academy model in 1999-2000addressed many issues. In Language Academy classrooms, studentsinteract with both native English-speaking peers and fellow Englishlanguage learners. They develop English proficiency through dailycommunication with other students, and are taught by both a licensed ELL andmainstream teacher. St. Paul's fourteen Language Academy sites aredesigned for new students in grades 1-6 who speak less than 300 wordsof English. In 2005-2006, approximately 950 students were enrolled inLanguage Academies.

Besides the programs listed above, a variety of additional ELL programsare used in schools. These include a Kindergarten Language Developmentprogram; the Latino Consent Decree (which provides support forSpanish-speaking students); International Academy: LEAP, whichis an optional alternative program designed for recently-arrivedEnglish language learners aged 13 to 21; and bilingual programs wheretwo languages are used throughout the day.

All programs have same basic goal—to help beginning English languagelearners achieve rapid English proficiency. Programs differ widely ininstructional strategies, program structure, and the amount of timestudents spend in classrooms with their native English-speaking peers.

The length of time for a student to achieve proficiency in Englishdepends on previous educational background, the effectiveness of theprogram and personal factors. Most experts on the subject agree that ELL studentsshould remain in programs as long as is necessary, rather than for apredetermined amount of time. Becoming proficient in English can take5-10 years, or even longer.

As Minnesota becomes home to greater numbers of immigrants andrefugees, Saint Paul Public Schools will continue to enroll largernumbers of students who speak a language other than English at home.

Posted: Thu, 09/13/2007 - 23:19

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