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All aboard: Improving English learner instruction through a new framework, professional development, and culture change

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By Renee Russ | May 29, 2019

This blog is the third in our series about the Southwest English Learners (SWEL) Research Partnership. With one of the highest proportions of English learner (EL) students in the nation, New Mexico has prioritized providing high-quality and culturally responsive instruction that supports EL students in acquiring English proficiency and mastering grade-level core content. REL Southwest, the New Mexico Public Education Department (NMPED), and other partners are working to support these ongoing efforts. Over the course of the partnership, REL Southwest staff will conduct research, identify evidence-based practices, and develop guidelines for analyzing data to support New Mexico’s priorities.

In this post, Renee Russ, deputy director of federal programs for Clovis Municipal School District, discusses how her district redefined their approach for serving English learners through a new framework. Russ presented this message to attendees at REL Southwest’s statewide event in Albuquerque, Promising and Effective Practices for English Learner Students: Implementing Integrated and Designated English Language Development, and we are pleased to share it here with a broader audience. (Read the other posts in this series: Part 1, Part 2.)

Leading when you’re not yet an expert can be daunting. To convey just how daunting it can be, I’d like to ask you to close your eyes for a moment and imagine you are on a boat...

If you happen to have envisioned yourself gliding tranquilly in calm waters in a glistening sailboat, let me transform your vision by telling you this boat is not so much a boat as it is a giant ship. It’s a giant ship carrying 740 precious passengers and you have just been designated Captain. You are the Captain of this ship, and it has drifted dramatically off course, tossed about by turbulent waters. You know your ship is doomed to sink, and that if it doesn’t sink because of the turbulence, it will soon be sunk at the hands of the fast-approaching, eye-patch wearing pirates you’ve just spotted coming your way.

This is where I found myself in the fall of 2016 after receiving word our district would soon undergo a site monitoring visit from the Language and Culture Bureau of the New Mexico Public Education Department (NMPED). Although I was new to the position of deputy director of federal programs at the time, I was certain that preparing for the site visit would be smooth sailing! After all, we were a district with clearly detailed policies and procedures for just about everything.

I eagerly convened a district team meeting with the expectation that we would collectively generate detailed responses to each of the categories in the NMPED monitoring instrument, the English Learner (EL) Checklist, and that the process would become simple and straightforward once we met. However, it became clear in the initial conversation that we had very little uniformity or common understanding of our model of service to English learners as a district.

The team could easily identify random pockets of greatness, but we realized that transforming our whole system was necessary to achieve widespread, deeply embedded professional practice and uniformity that would sufficiently serve all of our English learners. We also knew that we had to go beyond simply creating new procedures if we wanted to leverage more than just procedural compliance. To gain deep commitment, we would also need to address belief systems that influenced the overall culture and expand the professional practice of teachers and administrators by providing them with a new set of knowledge and skills. It was a formidable undertaking, but we had to turn the ship around.

Using NMPED’s EL Checklist to guide our work, we designed a comprehensive framework of support and accountability to redefine our approach to serving the English learners in the Clovis school district. The critical pieces of our new framework are below.

  • Standardized processes: We created policies and procedures described below for identifying, serving, and monitoring English learners. These processes were communicated broadly and are now considered non-negotiable. Policies for data entry and collection process specific to English learners were improved as well.
  • Professional development: We provided targeted, job-embedded training to all certified staff members. District leaders and site principals were trained to provide quality feedback specific to English learner instruction and programs. Additionally, all certified staff participated in two days of professional development to learn how to use English language proficiency assessments and English language development standards to provide differentiated and scaffolded instruction across content areas. All newly hired staff are now required to attend this training within their first year of employment with the district.
  • English learner case managers: At every school in the district, onsite staff members designated as EL case managers receive an annual stipend to manage and oversee EL processes for their school, including identification, placement, and academic monitoring for opt-out and reclassified ELs. EL case managers typically hold TESOL and/or Bilingual endorsements and serve as instructional resources for their colleagues. They may also provide input when English learners are referred to the Student Assistance Team or for IEP meetings of English learners also identified as special education students. English learner case manager caseloads do not exceed 50 students.
  • Additional language instruction: All English learners are enrolled in a minimum of 45 minutes of additional designated ELD (English Language Development) instruction according to their current English proficiency level. Prior to this, only EL students attending an elementary school with a Bilingual Multicultural Educational Program were receiving additional language instruction. Formal opt-out procedures must be followed for a student to be exempted from this language instruction. Instructional materials and professional development have been provided to teachers of these courses.

After only a year of implementation, the district is already seeing indications of progress:

  • The number of identified English learners has risen from 740 to 875 as a result of improved identification processes. We standardized the process for completion of Language Usage Surveys and notification to the Federal Programs Department for prompt screening. We implemented districtwide training for all staff, including EL identification training for school administrators and office staff. Other improvements included upgrading data collection processes and sharing updated forms and procedures with the entire district in written and electronic form.
  • The percentage of students opted-out of English learner services has decreased by more than half, going from over 100 to less than 40. We believe an important reason for this is that all staff members are now better equipped to hold conversations with parents to discourage opt-outs and because staff members place a higher value now in the importance of English learners receiving additional language instruction.
  • The percentage of students reclassified to English proficient across all grades has moved from less than 0.2 percent in 2017 to 2.5 percent in 2018. It’s a long way from where we need to be, but it is progress.

The official NMPED site monitoring visit was postponed, but we did forge a meaningful partnership with our NMPED Language and Culture Bureau contacts who provided valuable feedback and support as we journeyed forward to transform our service to English learners in our district. Although there is still work to do, we are slowly but surely turning our ship around.

For more information about English learners, REL Southwest suggests these resources:

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Author Information

Renee Russ

Deputy Director of Federal Programs | Clovis Municipal School District