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Delaware school district makes changes in teaching English to English Language Learners

Gabriel Pilonieta-Blanco
El Tiempo Hispano

The Christina School District is preparing to implement changes in teaching English as a second language.

As we reported in our last issue, the Christina District administration will implement a series of measures to improve the teaching of English to English language learners in the different schools in the district. To learn more about the project, we met with the Deputy Superintendent for Teaching and Learning Dr. Fara Zimmerman; the Director K-12 Curriculum and Professional Development, Dr. Judi Coffield; the English Language Learners Specialist, Amber Herrera; and the Manager of Communications/Public Information Officer Christina School District, Wendy Lapham, who provided us with the information we share today with our readers.

At present, 3,196 Hispanic students are enrolled in schools in the district. Out of a total of 17,223, the increase has been of 42.7%, while the overall student population has dropped by 6.9%, which is indicative of the impact of Hispanic youth in the district.

Having said this, we understand the need to assess whether the current service delivery model being implemented meets the needs of the district’s English language learners including the Hispanic population. Hence the administrators contracted with the Center for Applied Linguistics and to a research carried out by Julette Grusell on the current state of English language learner services. Some recommendations to improve the before mentioned model have emerged.

Dr. Zimmerman wanted to make clear that this issue is very important to her. She usually does not meet with the press, but has made an exception with El Tiempo Hispano, as she understands the issue so warrants.

“My platform is the work of Angela Valenzuela and her research on urban education from a sociological and multicultural perspective, with a focus on minority youth in schools, particularly at the K-12 level. I moved from a district that had larger Hispanic speaking population than this one, certain schools had very many ESL children, so it is familiar to me. In that context, what we are doing here, more than some other things you may hear, is allowing or encouraging children to stay in schools near their homes.”

An important detail found during the review of procedures is that “what we were calling bilingual services was not really bilingual; it was a sort of translation services in which teachers were translating into Spanish for children, but didn’t use Spanish materials. There were some books ordered for certain schools but not all of the teachers are utilizing the materials,” Zimmerman explained with the help of Amber Herrera.

“We didn’t have teachers teaching in Spanish, interacting with children in Spanish, having instruction in Spanish as a formal part of the day and English in part of the day. This design is something that we will have in place by next year at Pulaski.

“What we have, and what we have been calling bilingual does not necessarily match the best practice models. So we were taking children away from their neighborhoods to go into ELL program schools for services. The teachers in these programs are wonderful, and the program was good. However, we were moving the elementary children long distances instead of providing language services for them in their neighborhood schools. The changes will allow us to provide the language services in their neighborhood schools.”

How do you define a bilingual program?

There are several different models for bilingual. One of them, and the one we intend to have, has children learning in English and Spanish in the same classroom, with increasing amount of English being introduced to the children.

Coffield intervened to add that the theory behind this model is that, “you use the child’s native language to teach the content so the children won’t fall behind while they are learning English. As they acquire more and more English, you teach more and more of the content in English. That model requires students to have a good foundation in their first language. Many of our students don’t come with reading and writing literacy in kindergarten necessarily.”

Zimmerman continued explaining, “One of the things we believe will happen as result of some of these adjustments is that we will have children receive the instruction they need based on their skill level where they are. So, if they need intensive support with language, we will have a teacher in the building to give them intensive support the number of hours they need to receive that intensive support.

If it is a child who is near proficiency, we will have them in situations where they will be using English more and still give them the support they need to reach proficiency. That may be one of the difficult issues for the people to adjust to, because it means that the teaching staff will need to follow the students. We’ll assign teachers more hours where there is greater need.”

The idea is to align the teaching in the classroom with the common core state standards, the standards which are expected to be achieved by the time they graduate.

Which are the major changes you are going to apply?

The main change is that when students come in to the district as kindergarten children, rather than saying to the parents, ‘if you want intensive support for your child’s English development, you need to go to one of the centers,’ we are saying to the parent, ‘you will stay in your neighborhood’s school and we will provide the intensive support in that school, in every school in the district.’ It means we will go to you instead of you coming to us.

We are starting to phase in the changes with kindergarten students next school year. If the kindergarten child has a brother or sister at one of the bilingual centers, and the family would like for the older child to come back to his home school, we will make that offer so all the children of the family can be in the same school.

If the child is in one of these bilingual centers, do they have the option to stay there?
Yes, they have the option to stay. If you have a fourth or fifth grader at Wilson, the child may stay at Wilson through fourth grade and fifth grade. There’s no change at all for secondary schools.

What other concerns have you now?
We have a large number of Spanish speaking children who do not complete high school, and that is an issue we need to take on. We also believe that there are other concerns with language that maybe we want to enhance and we have to, but so far, where they go for their language instruction will remain unchanged.

How was the family involvement in taken these decisions?

As a part of the Center for Applied Linguistic’s study, they conducted interviews with teachers, administrators, students and parents. In addition, Julette Grusell, a teacher from Christiana High School, did her dissertation for doctorate degree in Family Engagement and Bilingual Education, and ESL students. The district asked her to present her findings to a group of our staff reviewing the services. She surveyed parents from Wilson, and she shared the study with us. The district also has secretaries interacting with parents on a regular basis and they tell us about parents’ concerns about learning English.

Grusell interviewed 60 parents randomly selected in two schools of the district, among parents that chose their children to be in the ELL program as well as among those who chose to enroll them in regular classes. In all cases, identity was kept confidential.

In her study, the researcher notes that “It appears that…

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