Tom Rooney, Superintendent of Lindsay Unified School District (LUSD), tells the story of how a father came to the high school after his son had graduated, demanding to know how it happened that his son couldn’t read. It was one of the turning points for Lindsay Unified School District, sparking the transformation to a performance-based system that wouldn’t allow the situation to develop ever again.
I had the opportunity to interview Brett Grimm, Assistant Principal of Curriculum & Instruction at Lindsay High School, on how the district approaches English language learners. His candidness and willingness to share insights is greatly appreciated. Over 30 percent of students at LHS are English language learners. Of the six K8 schools in LUSD, two are dual language.
What does your ELL program look like in a performance-based district?
In a performance-based system, when we are not marching kids through the system, the requirements of students with special education needs or language needs stick out. There is no way to avoid those needs. We have to respond so they can progress. In a performance-based system, we know where the gaps are. We no longer graduate students with second-grade reading levels. The needs are transparent to everyone. Parents and students know exactly at what level students are reading and writing.
The students can’t hide by sitting in the back of the room quietly. We know who they are, not because of an early intervention system, but because our system is based on knowing exactly where students are in their academic journey and how they are progressing. We know if a student is entering from one of our elementary schools with higher math skills but is still struggling with writing in English. We know the ones who need extra coaching because their self-directed lifelong learner skills aren’t very well developed.
We reduced the number of levels for building English language skills from five to three in shifting from the old ELD standards to the new ones that are aligned to Common Core: emerging, expanding, and bridging. Students who are bridging have the basic skills, and their language needs are often very similar to other students.
High school always creates more pressure to respond to students who are entering academically below grade level or with language needs, as it is essentially time-based with a four- or five-year limit on education. How does LUSD address this for ELL students?
We have a three-pronged strategy at the high school. First, our strategy for students at bridging (or what would be known as Level 4 and 5) is to make sure they are getting support within the school day. We are building teachers’ repertoire to support literacy across the curriculum. The learning facilitators are lifting up vocabulary, using sentence frames and graphic organizers, and doing writing prompts. For example, math teachers ask students to write about their process in solving a math problem. We are also encouraging students to show their English learning facilitators evidence from other classes of their skills in seven different modes of writing.
The effort to build capacity to teach literacy across the curriculum is benefiting more than the ELL students. In general, children who have grown up in poverty are also lacking academic language proficiency. This has a big impact on our ability to teach at higher level skills.
We believe that students have to build their language skills in order to access and engage in complex concepts. You can certainly access deeper learning without well-developed language skills – students can think about complex issues, but they will have a hard time expressing those thoughts without the vocabulary and ability to describe nuances and dynamics. Furthermore, more complex text does require stronger literacy skills in terms of analysis and engaging with the text.
This is the same for students who come from families with limited education as ELL students at the bridging level. Literacy and the higher levels of learning go hand-in-hand.
Third, we have also added a special strategy to respond to incoming freshmen who are behind in academic content and are at emerging and expanding English skills. Not every student is an ELL student, but we offer them self-contained classrooms of twenty students supported by literacy specialists. Some are socially and emotionally ready for high school, while some are transfer students who need substantial help to get their foundational skills to high-school level. If we can, we ask that these students continue working in the middle school until they’re ready to move on.
We have the capacity to serve forty to forty-five students who need this intensive support. The minute they are showing readiness for the full academic day, we transition them. Approximately 25-30 percent of the incoming freshmen are entering with eighth grade or lower skills, although the numbers vary depending on which disciplines are considered. If we had the capacity, we would want to provide another fifty students with these intensive services in ninth grade.
In our community we are seeing the mothers and children staying in Lindsay while fathers continue to migrate to other work. Thus, we haven’t had as many newcomers – high school students with no English. When they do enroll, we try to be as personalized as possible.
[Policy Context: California has a state law that after age fifteen, students can’t be in elementary school. Given that LUSD has K8 schools, some students might have to enter high school before they have the maturity or academic skills to do so. Furthermore, California policy emphasizes that high school should be four years, as they do not use extended graduation rates the way many other states do. This means that high school is essentially creating a time-bound system starting at the point that students enroll in high school.]
Most districts are investing in early warning systems, but you are saying that you don’t need to build that capacity because your performance-based system already lets you know who needs extra support. Could you explain more about how that works?
In the spring, we begin to prepare for the next ninth grade. At LUSD we try to be as flexible as we can be in term of organizing our resources around the students. So we think about what we are going to want to have in place for the next fall as early as possible.
We look at our information management system called Educate, which tracks student learning to see what we can find out about our incoming freshmen. We look at which level they are on across content domains. We identify which ones are already working on high school curriculum, which ones are really close to mastering the eighth grade academic levels, and which ones are still in need of help to get to the ninth grade level. We start to plan strategic intervention groups, taking into consideration if they just need English or math, or both. Our master schedule takes all of this into account. We also prepare for the fact that some students will be able to transition out of the intensive classrooms while others are going to be together all year. Some of this depends on their own maturity, the strength of their life skills, and/or weaknesses in English as they enter the regular classroom.
As you look back over the past several years, are there any lessons you can share with others?
There are several insights, although they might not hold true for other districts.
First, we found that we were re-grouping students too much. There was a cost to so many transitions during the school year. We obviously don’t want to hold students back, so blended learning allows students to advance without initiating the re-grouping process. However, for ELL students, once they are at the bridging level we want to get them in the regular classroom as quickly as possible.
Second, we found that it was more effective and manageable for groups if they had fewer measurable topics to work on. Students could help each other more easily and teachers can work with small groups. We now try to work with no more than two measureable topics in a group. Teachers are able to provide more support to ELL students in their classrooms when there is less demand for teaching multiple measureable topics.
Third, we are investing in more summer intervention. Summer school is different in a performance-based system. Students focus on the specific measurable topics they need help with – they don’t have to retake the entire course. Some students want to come during the summer to help get to or stay on grade level. They just need a bit more time. Others need to be coached into it. For ELL students, summer intervention is an opportunity to accelerate the process of building their skills.
Fourth, we have become more thoughtful about how we think about pace and learning trajectories. The clock starts ticking when students enter high school. Students who need to cover more learning during the four years of high school may want to accelerate their pace of learning or take advantage of the summer to keep learning. However, others may need to work during the summer or feel that the best they can do is an academic level per year. Then we have to talk seriously that they may end up being in high school for a fifth year. Some students will move to adult education to complete their diploma, as the hours are more flexible. We are all starting to understand the trade-offs between pace, amount of schooling, and the steepness of the trajectory.
One of the unknown questions all of us have about competency education is what it is going to cost to actually get all students to proficiency. I anticipate that eventually we will get to the place where we start reviewing the cost-effectiveness of different strategies. Do you have any insight into this?
As I mentioned before, we think we know what works to help the students entering below ninth grade academic levels or who are not yet to the bridging level in terms of English language skills. But we don’t have the capacity to provide adequate specialists to support groups of twenty students, and we don’t think the answer is to increase the size of the classes.
Thus, funding is a huge issue. We rely heavily on federal funding, which includes migrant funds and after-school funding (21st Century Community Learning Centers) to be able to provide the more intensive supports. However, we probably need twice that amount to meet the needs of our student population. So we continue to try to think about whether there are more cost-effective approaches.
As I’ve mentioned before, we are building the capacity of all of our learning facilitators to be able to build literacy skills. Are we there pedagogically? Not yet. But each year our learning facilitators build their skills. We also have a strategic intervention committee that continues to review research, look at the data, and explore new ideas.