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Virgin Islands Project Supports All Educators in Instructing English Learners

Dr. Carrie Parker

Dr. Carrie Parker
Principal Research Scientist, REL Northeast & Islands

Thu Jul 29 2021

By Carrie Parker

Co-authored by Cerelle Morrow, Sheila Rodriguez, and Sandra Espada from REL Northeast & Islands

For the last two years, a team of educators from the U.S. Virgin Islands (USVI) has collaborated with REL Northeast & Islands researchers on a project designed to ensure equitable access to high-quality instruction for USVI English learners. The team—composed of two administrators from the Virgin Islands Department of Education (VIDE), two district English as Second Language (ESL) coordinators, and two ESL teachers—has been working to transform how USVI educators view their role as teachers of English learners.

Rectangle: Rounded Corners: VIDE's Vision for English Learners The Virgin Islands Department of Education creates an inclusive environment for English learners that embraces their diverse cultural backgrounds and community heritage. All stakeholders—including students, parents, teachers, administrators, and community members—share in the responsibility to develop their linguistic, cognitive, and academic skills, using high-quality instructional practices based on rigorous research that provides them with the skills and competencies to achieve their goals and aspirations and become contributing citizens prepared for college, careers, and the global economy

An Update on Progress

As described in a previous blog, the team began by developing a vision statement for USVI English learners as well as a parallel logic model—a tool for helping define a program's intended impact.  For the next stage of the project, the team decided to focus on one of logic model's four goals: implementing multiple and coordinated evidence-based practices and strategies to meet the diverse needs of English learners.

The work included two phases: First, working together, the VIDE and REL Northeast & Islands teams reviewed current research to identify which high-quality instructional practices for English learners to prioritize. Second, they strategized ways to implement those practices with a broad range of educators, expanding the audience beyond ESL teachers.

Identifying the Best Instructional Practices for English Learners

Shortly after VIDE began examining research on high-quality instructional practices, the pandemic broke out and planned in-person meetings shifted to remote. Despite this challenge, the VIDE and REL Northeast & Islands teams met regularly to examine recent research and guidance, including the IES Practice Guide: Teaching Academic Content and Literacy to English Learners in Elementary and Middle School, the OELA EL Toolkit, and others, and as a result identified the following four high-quality instructional practices for English learners as priorities for VIDE educators:

  • Concurrent content and language learning, in which students learn grade-level academic language and content simultaneously through dedicated and integrated English language development.  
  • Academic discussion, which promotes students' practicing of academic talk and provides the building blocks for deep learning.  
  • Scaffolding, a practice that provides instruction to students at the appropriate level to both challenge and allow them to access learning. 
  • Formative assessment, practices that allow educators to assess students' learning and adjust instruction of both language and content. 

Ensuring All Educators Access to Best Practices for English Learners

After identifying these priority high-quality instructional practices, the team focused on how to provide all educators with access to these practices. To reach general education and special education teachers, in addition to ESL teachers, they designed a four-part webinar series with one webinar focused on each strategy. The goal of the webinars echoed VIDE's vision for English learners that "All stakeholders . . . share in the responsibility to use high-quality instructional practices based on rigorous research."  

The VIDE team promoted the webinars with this in mind; they included not only ESL educators, but also classroom and special education teachers, principals, other administrators, and VIDE staff in the invitation. The recruiting paid off: More than 100 educators from across the USVI attended at least one webinar in the series. Evaluations of the series indicated that participants found the webinars to be extremely valuable in shifting their instructional practice for English learners.

In our follow-up with VIDE, St. Croix District ESL Director Jose Perez noted the importance of expanding the webinar invitation to all USVI educators, commenting: "My colleagues and district educators were able to benefit from the support provided with the ESL webinars by reflecting [on] and implementing policies and instructional strategies in their schools and classrooms." Migdalia Cruz-Atherton, Ed.D., District Coordinator of the English Language Acquisition Program in St. Thomas, concurred: "The webinars helped the ESL and content teachers to better serve English learner students in their classrooms."

Although not related to the initial project plan, Yvette McMahon-Arnold, Director of Instructional Development at the State Office of Curriculum & Instruction, suggested adding the webinar materials to VIDE's newly developed open educational resources platform—a digital library and collaboration platform to assist educators in planning instruction. REL Northeast & Islands is now assisting VIDE as they design supporting materials to help educators access the webinars and engage in professional learning communities (PLCs) that allow for deeper exploration of instructional priorities. Dr. McMahon-Arnold noted, "I am particularly grateful for the webinar series targeting our content teachers and the PLCs through which the webinars will continue to provide support for our teachers."

Looking Backwards and Forward

As this project draws to a close, VIDE team members reflected on how this project has changed the English learner program across the islands. The team agreed that working with REL Northeast & Islands to develop a vision and logic model helped guide their steps and transform how they view their work with English learners. In addition, they reported that administrators and leaders have a greater understanding of the importance of high-quality instruction for English learners. Here are a few thoughts from team members:

  • "The REL Team walked us through the process of developing a logic model and helped us to get where we needed to go.  The many opportunities to discuss and share during all the work made us stronger in what we do in the districts. . . REL's expertise has made me reflect more on what I can do to support the students and the teachers more!  For that, I am grateful!" –Migdalia Cruz-Atherton, Ed.D.
  • "The logic model was the guiding force that brought all the pieces of support required to target the ESOL program's needs together." –Sally A. Camacho, Ph.D., ESOL Teacher
  • "There [has] been expanded collaboration and commitment among different levels of leadership teams to increase awareness and provide the needed support to the EL program." –Jose Perez

The VIDE team plans to continue to engage educators in PLCs to further implement their vision, logic model, and high-quality instructional practices to improve teaching and learning for English learners throughout the islands. To learn more about our training and resources to support educators in providing high-quality instruction to English learners, visit the Regional English Learner Research Alliance page and check out our tools & resources and webinar recordings.