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English Language Learners find success in Saint Paul Public Schools

September 25, 2007 By Betsy Mowry, TC Daily Planet

The Saint Paul Public Schools district (SPPS) has the largest enrollment of English Language Learners (ELL) in the state of Minnesota, with 40% of all students receiving ELL services. St. Paul's ELL students have tested higher on the Test of Emerging Academic English than students in the rest of the state for three years. They have also narrowed the math and reading achievement gaps between ELL and non-ELL students in St. Paul each year.

Managing 113 different languages and dialects, the school district approaches the ELL program with a combination of common sense and creativity. Ninety-six percent of SPPS students speak one of the most widespread languages, which include English, Hmong, Spanish, Somali, Vietnamese, Burmese/Karen, Amharic (Eritrea/Ethiopia) and Oromo (Kenya/Ethiopia).

Once referred to as "ESL" (English as a Second Language), present-day programs are now called ELL (English Language Learner) programs, which refer specifically to the use or study of English by speakers of other languages. (The name change recognizes that, for many students, English is actually a third or fourth language.) The district has approximately 250 licensed ELL teachers and 105 bilingual educational assistants.

Valeria Silva, formerly SPPS Director of English Language Learner programs, is one of the reasons the ELL program has made such advances in recent years. Silva was awarded the 2007 University Council for Educational Administration (UCEA) Excellence in Leadership Award in April of this year and was promoted to the Chief Academic Officer for Saint Paul Public Schools last winter.

In January of this year, 19-year SPPS veteran Heidi Bernal, took over as the Interim ELL Director and her position became official in June. When asked about which elements of the ELL program make it so successful, she stated, "The collaborative model of pairing classroom and ELL teachers has been an important piece - it sets up an effective teaching environment. In the classrooms, we try not to interpret, we teach through visual aids and "realia", a word that essentially means real things such as maps, pictures and objects. [The approach] is just good teaching and it is critical for ELL students."

St. Paul's ELL program was officially launched in 1975, when 60 Southeast Asian refugees were taught through a special intensive English program called TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages). The ELL population swelled in the early 1980s when large numbers of Hmong refugees resettled in the Twin Cities area. The population has tripled since 1985, the year that the average mainstream teacher began working in the district. In other words, the student population of SPPS has undergone a dramatic transformation during the tenure of most SPPS teachers.

The Office of Academics has developed and expanded a number of programs to support the unique and varied needs of English language learners. Incoming students have had many different experiences with education, culture, and family. Some can read and write in their first language, while others have had little or no formal education or have spent most of their lives alone or with their families in refugee camps. Additionally, some were born in the U.S. and live in close-knit communities where everyone speaks a specific language such as Spanish or Vietnamese and have had little experience with English.

In the late 1990s, ELL programs in Saint Paul Public Schools began to shift away from the previously dominant "pull-out" models, which drew individuals or small groups of students out of the classroom to work with language specialists. Students would return to the classroom, and then re-acclimate to the activities that were already taking place.

Now, when students arrive in Saint Paul, they are evaluated at the Student Placement Center, and are tested and scored from 1-5 (with 1 being low, or having the least English language abilities). Based on their assessment, elementary school children may be sent to one of 14 Language Academies in the district. Middle and high school students will go to one of the secondary schools designated as English Language Centers (ELC). The secondary school programs help ease the transition for newcomer students while allowing them to work toward graduation standards. ELC students spend most of the school day in intensive language classes, while they study subjects such as geography, science, health, and math.

The implementation of the Language Academy model in 1999-2000 addressed many issues. In Language Academy classrooms, students interact with both native English-speaking peers and fellow English language learners. They develop English proficiency through daily communication with other students, and are taught by both a licensed ELL and mainstream teacher. St. Paul's fourteen Language Academy sites are designed for new students in grades 1-6 who speak less than 300 words of English. In 2005-2006, approximately 950 students were enrolled in Language Academies.

Besides the programs listed above, a variety of additional ELL programs are used in schools. These include a Kindergarten Language Development program; the Latino Consent Decree (which provides support for Spanish-speaking students); International Academy: LEAP, which is an optional alternative program designed for recently-arrived English language learners aged 13 to 21; and bilingual programs where two languages are used throughout the day.

All programs have same basic goal-to help beginning English language learners achieve rapid English proficiency. Programs differ widely in instructional strategies, program structure, and the amount of time students spend in classrooms with their native English-speaking peers.

The length of time for a student to achieve proficiency in English depends on previous educational background, the effectiveness of the program and personal factors. Most experts on the subject agree that ELL students should remain in programs as long as is necessary, rather than for a predetermined amount of time. Becoming proficient in English can take 5-10 years, or even longer.

As Minnesota becomes home to greater numbers of immigrants and refugees, Saint Paul Public Schools will continue to enroll larger numbers of students who speak a language other than English at home.

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