Knocking down barriers to success: English language learners
Students present unique challenges to teachers. But those challenges can be exacerbated among certain groups of students who historically have underperformed.
Those groups – ranging from students whose native language isn’t English to those on the lower spectrum of the socioeconomic scale – are a part of what is called the education gap: the academic difference between white students who aren’t from economically challenged families and the students belonging to the historically challenged subgroups.
The Iowa State Board of Education recognized that closing the gap is critical for students – and the state’s long-term success. So 16 years ago, the board created the Breaking Barriers to Teaching and Learning Award, designed to recognize schools that have worked to overcome the education gap.
This year, five schools were honored for their work over the 2016-17 school year. One of them was Riverdale Heights of the Pleasant Valley Community School District.
Riverdale Heights has a long history of closing the education gap. Indeed, this year the school received its fourth Breaking Barriers award.
Its work with students whose native language isn’t English is exemplary. Indeed, 82 percent of that student population is proficient in reading and math at Riverdale Heights, compared to a statewide average of 50 percent among English language learners.
We asked Riverdale Heights Principal Jen Gertson what they are doing.
What is the guiding philosophy of your school?
At the Pleasant Valley School District we are committed to Excellence. Our goal is to have the finest academic and extra-curricular programs in the state. Not in some things, but in everything. Not for some kids, but for every kid. In our building we truly take that goal to heart and work collaboratively to meet the needs of each and every child.
What particular challenges does your school face?
As a district we value the importance of each and every child receiving core instruction, regardless of ELL or special education needs. It can be a challenge to arrange schedules so that students receive core instruction, intervention services and the supports necessary to close achievement gaps while making grade level learning accessible. My staff does a wonderful job working through these challenges, collaborating to give students what they need.
What, specifically, is your school doing to push all-student advancement?
Teachers at Riverdale Heights and across the Pleasant Valley School District work in grade level professional learning communities to collaborate and analyze student data to guide instructional decision making for each individual student. The intent is to provide each student the opportunity to receive instruction differentiated to meet their specific needs. Using a Multi-tiered System of Supports we hope to intervene to extend learning and to address areas where support is needed to provide all students a guaranteed and viable learning experience regardless of race or other factors.
Our building uses teacher leadership to provide ongoing job embedded professional development opportunities for all teachers and ELL staff is able to push into classrooms to support student learning. We are working to guarantee at least a year’s growth in reading for every student.
What, specifically, is your school doing to push the advancement of ELL students?
I cannot say we “target” any one group of students. Our building is becoming increasingly diverse and we celebrate that. We have many different languages spoken in the building and we work to look at data within subgroups to make sure learning is accessible and expectations are high for every student. WIN (What I Need) time is built in to each team’s schedule and the four grade level teachers collaborate with reading specialists, special education teachers, ELL teachers, specials teachers, the counselor, administration and the Instructional Coach to analyze data and determine intervention based on multiple pieces of data. We celebrate our diversity and scaffold instruction to meet all student needs while keeping the bar high for each and every child.
What advice would you like to share with your contemporaries?
Relationships are a key to success and the bar should be kept high for all students. It really does take everyone working together for a common goal. If we continue to know our kids and what they need, and work together to give them the supports they require, we can make a difference and will close achievement gaps. Don’t let anything become a barrier for that work to happen.