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High Expectations for EL Students

Districts Show Gains with English Language Learners


Letter by letter, fourth-grader David Espinoza read through the alphabet on flash cards. English-learner teacher Nicole Adams timed him with a stopwatch at 40 seconds. Unsatisfied, David wanted to try again.

“Last week you were only able to do it in one minute. Now 40 seconds seems slow,” Adams said.

David, a recent immigrant from Cuba who started at Gladiola Elementary School in September, tried again, hesitating at just one letter. His time: 34 seconds — a personal record. “Wow! Wow!” Adams exclaimed to a gleeful David, who wrote the time down on his data sheet.

First-grader Gustavo Aburto Ambriz shows his story to EL teacher Nicole Adams
First-grader Gustavo Aburto Ambriz shows his story to EL teacher Nicole Adams

David is learning English letters, sounds and reading. By the end of the school year, he will be much more proficient. Adams spends time with him conversing in Spanish and English, in ways that capture his attention. David knows a lot about dinosaurs and, in Spanish, talked excitedly about a brachiosaurus. In English, he practiced words like “mouth” and “neck” while describing the prehistoric beast.

“He’s really eager to learn and not afraid to practice,” Adams said. “He will be much more fluent by the end of the year.” He has strong Spanish speaking, reading and academic skills, she said, so he’s on the right track.

Gladiola is one of only 35 schools recognized by the Michigan Department of Education for academic efforts for English learners over the past two years, and is eligible to be named a 2016 Title 1 Distinguished School in the category of Serving Special Populations (English learners). Also in the running are West Godwin Elementary in Godwin Heights Public Schools, Explorer Elementary in Kentwood Public Schools, Sibley Elementary in Grand Rapids Public Schools, and Appleview Elementary in Sparta Area Schools.

The top two schools will be announced in late November and recognized at the 2017 National Title 1 Conference in Long Beach, California.

The schools have shown growth in proficiency levels with their EL populations.

Fourth-grader David Espinoza, who is from Cuba, uses beads that correspond to questions to grow his vocabulary
Fourth-grader David Espinoza, who is from Cuba, uses beads that correspond to questions to grow his vocabulary

High Expectations Key 
David Lyon, who was hired as Gladiola principal last year, credits a strong culture of shared leadership in the building and strong EL instruction including a full-time EL teacher, formerly Laura VanderWerf and now Adams.

He said EL students are held to high expectations, and not not limited because of low proficiency in English, Lyon said.

“Sometimes the perception in your struggle with English is your struggle with ability. This really proves you’re a very capable student in spite of your struggles with the language,” he said.

In-depth language instruction challenges EL students in Adams’ class to really think about words. They hold colorful beads resembling a caterpillar. Each bead corresponds with different questions on the classroom wall. When David thinks about a dinosaur, for example, he goes through each bead. What does it do? What does it look like? What is it made of? What are its parts? Where does it live? And what else?

At Godwin Heights, Director of Instruction Michelle Krynicki said staff works hard to build relationships and collaborate. Oftentimes, instruction can be tweaked in classrooms to benefit all students.

“The celebration for us at West Godwin isembracing the idea that all of these learners are our responsibility,” she said.

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National Title 1 Distinguished Schools Program

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Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese is associate managing editor and reporter, covering Byron Center, Kentwood, Wyoming and Grand Rapids Community College. She was one of the original SNN staff writers, helping launch the site in 2013 and enjoys fulfilling the mission of sharing the stories of public education. She has worked as a journalist in the Grand Rapids area since 2000. A graduate of Central Michigan University, she has written for The Grand Rapids Press, Advance Newspapers, On-the-Town Magazine and Group Tour Media. Read Erin's full bio or email Erin.

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