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Case Study: Distinctive Schools Leads Personalized Learning for English Language Learners in Illinois and Minnesota

CompetencyWorks Blog


Issue(s): Issues in Practice, Learn Lessons from the Field

Photo by Allison Shelley/The Verbatim Agency for American Education: Images of Teachers and Students in Action

This post originally appeared at iNACOL on January 29, 2018.  It is the seventh blog in a series that explores the ideas in the iNACOL report, Next Generation Learning Model for English Language Learners: Promising Practices and Considerations for Teaching and Learning. Read the first post here.

The following case study represents promising practices in the field using personalized, competency-based learning specifically for ELL students. Each case study in this blog series is considered promising in that they incorporate many of the core principles for next generation learning to support ELL student success. All case studies are examples of programs taking a longer view and a more holistic approach to student outcomes over time — defining the goal as helping students to achieve at high levels over the course of their schooling — in addition to becoming English-proficient.

Each case study addresses the core principles for next generation learning for ELL students that were discussed in previous blog posts:

  • Redefining success for ELL students
  • Assessments of and for learning
  • Personalized learning approaches
  • Building educator role and capacity

Distinctive Schools (CICS West Belden, CICS Bucktown, Minnesota Excellence in Learning Academy)

Location: Chicago, IL, and Brooklyn Park, MN
Grades Served: K-8 and K-2

Distinctive Schools is a non-profit charter management organization that manages four schools in partnership with Chicago International Charter Schools (CICS) in Chicago, IL. Two of those CICS schools are featured below. Distinctive also manages Minnesota Excellence for Learning Academy in Brooklyn Park, MN. Distinctive Schools support the design and implementation of personalized learning within the schools they manage using a bilingual rotation model. The following are background information and highlights from some of the Distinctive managed campuses.

  • CICS West Belden: West Belden, managed by Distinctive Schools, is a K-8 elementary and middle school campus with roughly 500 students, of which 200 students are classified as ELL students with Spanish as their primary language. West Belden provides personalized learning strategies including flexible learning environments, learner profiles, personalized learning plans, competency-based progression and technology-enhanced instruction with curricular approaches to encourage students’ success and growth. The school has created two multi-age classrooms to foster student learning at their own pace. West Belden’s bilingual kindergarten teachers encourage students to use English and Spanish to make meaning. Students are learning in both languages with biliteracy skills embedded into every learning objective.
  • CICS Bucktown: Bucktown, managed by Distinctive Schools, is a K–8 elementary and middle school campus with 688 students, of which 118 are classified as ELL students with Spanish as their primary language. Multi-age students are grouped together and are provided supports from content and ELL co-teachers. Bucktown aims to inspire and support each child’s physical, social, emotional and academic learning for success at school and beyond using a personalized learning approach. In order to educate the “whole child,” beyond content and language instruction, Bucktown also embeds social-emotional competencies in the curriculum.
  • Minnesota Excellence in Learning Academy (MELA): MELA is a K–3 elementary school in Brooklyn Park, Minnesota, that uses a personalized and bilingual learning model for ELL students. MELA enrolls 200 students of which 50 are classified as ELL students from a diversity of languages and backgrounds. At MELA, ELL teachers receive independent collaboration time and professional development. Teachers rotate during their professional development to meet with ELL teachers and discuss ways to improve their instruction to reach their ELL students. Within its personalized model, language and content teachers work together to support every learner, switching from one language to another.

Redefining success for ELL students: Distinctive Schools focuses on literacy skills in both English and ELL students’ primary language(s). Their school design is intentional about providing a climate that promotes ELL students’ voice and choice in what language they prioritize learning while supporting literacy and academic content.

Assessment of and for learning: Students are provided a variety of formative and summative assessments to determine their learning levels. Educators focus instruction and supports based on student language domains and provide ongoing feedback in response to student assessments.

Personalized learning approaches: Distinctive Schools uses a bilingual rotation classroom model that utilizes need-based flexible grouping, even among different classrooms with language and content supports, word walls, environmental print, libraries and student work in their primary language and in English.

Distinctive Schools’ English Learner Station Rotation Model

Distinctive Schools implements a common strategy of language integration within the Personalized Learning model based on:

  • Learner profiles.
  • Language standard assessment.
  • Cultural background.
  • Student and parent choice in student’s language and literacy focus.

Learner Profiles: Within a student’s learner profile, learning strengths and challenges are identified. In addition to student strengths, needs and motivations, teachers collaborate to determine each student’s language development levels, with relevant information related to where the student was born and his or her linguistic, cultural and academic analysis from language perspectives. Opportunities are embedded to reflect on students’ affective factors from language learning such as student motivation and attitude toward English or bilingual education and personal histories.

Personalized Learning Paths: Personalized learning paths are designed to meet the learning goals and needs of each learner. Personalized learning paths can lead to a redefinition and new understanding of lifelong learning to include both formal and informal goals. When students are setting their goals, Distinctive Schools teachers are trained to consider effective language learning strategies. The types of experiences that are discussed involve strategies that play a major role with regard to success in language classes, such as how language learners set their own language goals and how they monitor their success to have a strong drive to communicate as equal to their monolingual pairs. This type of analysis helps teachers drive students to more attainable goals and feel motivated. Distinctive Schools uses a language learner profile tool to add school formative assessment and create specific student language goals, personalize progress reports for parents based on language domains selected and give teachers student goals that can be applied in the classroom and serve as intervention practices to evaluate.

Competency-Based Progressions: Competency-based progressions are where each student’s progress toward clearly defined goals is continually assessed and a student advances and earns credit as soon as he/she demonstrates mastery. Assessment and ongoing monitoring is key for Distinctive Schools. Based on the numbers of language learners, all data is analyzed from a language acquisition perspective, including linguistic accommodations per student per domain aligned to fixed and variable formative assessment expectations.

Flexible Environment for Personalization: Distinctive Schools provides flexible learning environments that offer rotations, project-based stations, teacher one-on-one support and small group instruction. Additionally, multiple supports for ELL students, including some individualized pull-out supports and an emphasis on ELL teachers pulling in or co-teaching so ELL students don’t have to leave their inclusive learning environments. Lessons are adjusted based on the student’s proficiency. Newcomer students receive more resources and strategies through their rotations.

ELL students of different ages and/or grade levels are combined in the same class while ELL teachers rotate in classrooms to provide language support. Creative staffing is integral to personalized learning and adequate support for language acquisition. All teachers’ lessons are differentiated to ensure that each ELL student receives instruction appropriate to his or her age or grade. Content material is bilingual, Spanish and English, teachers rotate per classrooms and/or students move based on their rotational learner path. Language plays a fundamental role within the school environment, where students navigate in familiar settings with bilingual word walls and the classroom library.

Educator role and capacity: Distinctive Schools’ biliteracy components incorporate all ELL teaching instructional models, assessment and resources used for language development. Content area instructors also provide language acquisition instructional strategies, linked to curriculum maps and aligned to Distinctive Schools’ teaching framework. Distinctive Schools educators work with content teachers to map out learning goals for ELL students. Courses are co-taught between content and ELL educators. Teachers collaborate on creating language and content objectives weekly, such as preparing to teach sentence stems and vocabulary that are appropriate for students’ proficiency levels and academic language. ELL and bilingual teachers also work on their own personalized learning growth plans with strategies they need to improve. Their growth plans are reviewed with instructional coaches. Professional learning communities provide support and collaboration on common strengths and challenges teachers are having in the classroom. Professional development and personalized growth plans and coaching help educators at Distinctive Schools improve in their craft to better serve all of their students.

Read the Entire Series: