Language barriers

The not-so-secret ELL summer slide problem that no one has quantified

PHOTO: Charlie Nye / The Star

Joey Casas doesn’t like speaking English.

“It’s too hard,” Joey mumbled in Spanish. “I don’t like when teachers make me speak it.”

The 8-year-old is one of more than 14,000 Aurora Public Schools students who is classified as an English language learner. He speaks primarily Spanish at home, which is where he spends a majority of his summertime.

Occasionally, Joey goes to the park or plays with friends, but they also speak Spanish, which means the student usually doesn’t utter a word of English between the end of school and the beginning of the next academic year.

Some educators and parents believe English learners have a deeper learning loss during the summer than their native-English speaking peers, partially due to less practice when they’re on break.

But there’s no national, statewide, or district data that proves this, which can raise several problems for students and schools.

Without knowing the depth of the problem, the nearly 127,000 students learning English as a second language in Colorado could be falling further behind in reading and writing without anyone noticing. And the issue is a tricky one, with factors both in and outside of school impacting students’ language skills.

In addition, these same students may not be aware they’re losing ground and their parents might be unaware of existing programs that can help curb the loss, or even turn it into academic gains with some assistance.

The research
There are case studies where English skills for groups of students are measured before and after summer break, but there’s no large database that measures the problem, said Kathy Escamilla, who is the project director for the Bilinguals United for Education and New Opportunities Center.

Part of the reason the data is limited is because there are some factors that are hard to account for.

For example, some English language learners leave the U.S. during the summer while others don’t, which can affect how much English exposure they get. So measuring their language abilities before and after summer break wouldn’t be accurate unless their exposure to English was also measured, which would be difficult to do.

“It’s very dependent on context, where the kid spends the summer,” Escamilla said. “What affects [summer slide] is your opportunity to continue practicing language.”

And not every student has that opportunity to practice during the summer, especially in homes where the primary language that is spoken is not English.

According to a 2012 study from an assistant professor at the University of California Irvine, students from non-English speaking homes experienced a deeper summer setback in English vocabulary than students from English speaking homes. And an article from 2012 highlighted the back-to-school struggle for Spanish-speaking English learners in Arizona who spent all summer without much exposure to English.

But a majority of the evidence that shows non-English speaking students suffer from summer learning loss more than their English-speaking peers is largely based on studies with small sample sizes or anecdotes.

The slide
So how do educators know this problem exists without consistent and broad data?

The issue starts with summer slide in general. It is well documented that students suffer learning losses during the summer. There are dozens of studies that show students score lower at the end of summer on the same math and English tests they take at the beginning of break.

The earliest studies go back more than 100 years, showing that summer slide has been a noticeable phenomenon for more than a century. A more recent study from the 1990s shows that at best students made no learning gains over the summer. But in the worst cases students lost about a month’s worth of reading, language and math skills.

The loss is even more striking for low-income students, who lose more than two months of reading skills, according to other studies.

One way families combat summer slide is by enrolling their kids in summer learning programs. But because English language learners also tend to hail from low-income homes, there can be difficulty accessing programs that cost money.

“I wish there were more [summer programs] that didn’t cost money,” Escamilla said. “A lot of our English language learner families also tend to be poor.”

But as much data as there is on summer learning losses for all students, how it specifically affects students learning English as a second language is not studied with as much fervor.

The problem
Even with a lack of data, educators and parents of students who are learning English know the problem is more pronounced for these kids.

One of these parents is Flor Vasquez, who came to the U.S. 12 years ago from Puebla, Mexico. She has three children who attend Swansea Elementary in northeast Denver and all of them are in the English Language Acquisition program, which tries to help non-English speaking students transition to full-time English instruction.

During the summer, her children don’t practice their English skills at home as much as she would like, Vasquez said. One of the challenges the family faces is that she is also learning English. Her first language, and the one she is most comfortable speaking in, is Spanish.

“[My kids] are pretty good at speaking [English], but not good at writing,” Vasquez said. “They don’t read or write as much during the summer. We’re all kind of learning English together. But it’s harder for them to learn when school is out.”

Vasquez and her three children all attended a summer learning program at Swansea held by Scholars Unlimited, a nonprofit organization that tries to improve literacy among high-risk students by offering afterschool and summer programming that incorporates reading and writing. This summer, about 700 Denver Public Schools students in 12 schools participated in the Scholars Unlimited summer program.

In addition, parents of these students could also participate in the program if they wanted to learn English.

Maria Valle, the site coordinator for Scholars Unlimited at Swansea, said students who don’t speak English often have parents who also don’t speak the language — which can be an especially difficult hurdle to overcome during the summer, she said.

“I’m more than sure [students who are English language learners] are more affected by [summer slide],” Valle said. “In talking to the parents, we have to let them know that everything they learned during the school year is going to be lost during the summer if they don’t continue to read and write [in English]… but parents aren’t able to help them, they don’t speak English and they don’t know how to help their kids.”

Even students themselves notice the problem.

Rainah Trujillo and Margarita Fonseca are both 9-years-old and attend schools in Denver. They both speak English and Spanish at home.

“I didn’t used to like writing but now I do,” said Rainah, who speaks mostly in English with her parents but mostly in Spanish with her grandparents.

Rainah admitted that if she hadn’t attended the Scholars Unlimited summer program, she would most likely not be reading or writing during the summer. Margarita echoed the same sentiment.

Joey, the ELL student from Aurora, stands in stark contrast to these girls. Since he doesn’t participate in any programs during the summer he doesn’t read, write or speak English for nearly three months.

A possible solution
These kids exemplify one of the main contributors to summer slide: availability of programs. While they participated in a summer program that keeps them writing and reading in between school years, that’s not the case for most students.

“There are limited opportunities for kids to engage in the kind of things that enrich your vocabulary and continue to propel your language learning,” Escamilla said.

Summer programs don’t even have to be specifically geared toward learning English or take place in a school setting to be beneficial, Escamilla said. For students learning English, simply engaging and practicing the language by talking and playing with other students can help stave off summer slide, she said.

“You can learn [English] by playing board games, you can learn English by being in little league and being on a team where everyone speaks English and you have to understand all the rules and you have to interact with kids,” Escamilla said. “There are all sorts of context and ways to learn English.”

But these programs come at a cost — literally. According to data from Afterschool Alliance, an organization that raises awareness of how important after school programs are, the average cost of summer programs in 2013 was $250 per child. If this applied to Vasquez and her three kids, they would have had to pay $1000 to keep learning English during the summer.

In addition, summer slide doesn’t just affect students during the summer, but the following school year as well, when these learning losses spill over.

In a survey from the National Summer Learning Association, 330 teachers out of a sample of 500 said it takes them three to four weeks to re-teach their students material from the previous year and 120 said it takes them even longer.

This can have a discouraging effect on students learning English, said Valle, the bilingual site coordinator.

“They have to start all over [the beginning of each academic year] and they get frustrated because they are coming again and again and making the progress but losing it,” she said. “They think ‘Why do I have to do it again?’”

But with some help from outside programs, these students might not have to “do it again.”

In addition to the summer program offered by Scholars Unlimited in Denver, Emerald Elementary in Broomfield works with the YMCA to host the free Cultural Awareness Through Creative Horizons (CATCH) camp.

While not specifically geared toward English language learners, the camp is free and targeted toward at-risk students in a historically white and middle-class community, such as those who are economically disadvantaged or behind in reading and writing.

More than half of the students at Emerald receive free or reduced lunch. In addition, about 45 percent of the students are Hispanic and almost a quarter are English language learners.

“It’s a really nurturing environment for kids to come into CATCH camp,” she said. “If they can have that summertime where they have fun, low pressure opportunities to practice English that’s not the high stakes experience of raising their hand in the classroom when you’re not sure if you have the answer right, I think it helps build this more trusting community for the kids.”

The feedback and data from these programs reflects the potential benefits.

According to teacher surveys at Emerald, students who participated in outside academic programs, including CATCH camp, saw an improvement in homework completion, participation and behavior.

In addition, commentary from parents on surveys indicated that they saw improvements in their children’s reading and homework.

And the Scholars Unlimited summer program reflects the same pattern seen at CATCH camp.

Students are given a reading comprehension assessment before and after the program to measure their English skills. Data from 2014 showed students made significant gains in literacy skills. A majority of the students were at or above grade level in reading, writing and speaking English by the end of the program.

If the data holds true for this summer, students won’t only avoid summer slide, but actually make gains in their language skills.

“We have many students who are new to the U.S. At one point we had 21 languages spoken in this school,” Reuss said. “Children and their families love these programs. These students are exposed to opportunities they wouldn’t have had otherwise. They love coming to summer school…it’s just a shame it’s not offered everywhere.”

How I Teach

As a first-year teacher, he wanted to quit. Watching ‘the greats’ helped him stick it out.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman

How do teachers captivate their students? Here, in a feature we call How I Teach, we ask great educators how they approach their jobs. You can see other pieces in this series here.

A few months after Kevin Vaughn took his first teaching job in a third grade classroom in Arizona, he decided to quit.

“Teaching was way beyond me,” he said.

Vaughn went to his principal and apologized profusely for his imminent resignation. But then things went off-track. His principal told him to calm down and suggested he visit other classrooms in the building to see what good teaching looked like.

Vaughn, now an art teacher at Dolores Elementary School in southwest Colorado, agreed and ultimately stuck with the job. He talked with Chalkbeat about his habit of “stealing” ideas from other teachers, the challenge of getting to know students he sees once a week and his love of fidgeting.

Vaughn is one of 20 educators selected for the state’s new Commissioners Teacher Cabinet. The group will provide input to officials at the Colorado Department of Education on the impact of education policies in the classroom.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Why did you become a teacher?
At the age of 30, I gave up a career in the food and beverage industry. I realized I was just feeding people. It might have been a wonderful dining experience and good food, but it was no longer something I could hang my hat on. I wanted something more. I wanted to make a difference in somebody’s life.

What does your classroom look like?
I like to run an organized classroom, so even though there is a great deal of creativity and energy in the room, I’d say the students are rather focused on their work while music from the era we are studying plays in the background.

Fill in the blank. I couldn’t teach without my __________. Why?
Fidget. Yes, believe it or not, I’ve always had a fidget — even before it was a fad. For the 20 years I’ve been teaching, I’ve played with clay, rubbed a rock, squished a sponge, rubbed a piece of cloth all the while providing instruction or walking around assisting students as they work. It keeps me calm and collected. It is great to be able to model for students how fidgeting should really look. It doesn’t need to take away one’s focus from the teacher or cause distraction to other students.

What is one of your favorite lessons to teach? How did you come up with the idea?

I’d have to say my current favorite lesson since becoming an art teacher is one in which I teach the kindergarteners about Wassily Kandinsky. We look at some of his work, discuss his style and his use of color, and then create our own using shaving cream and food coloring. The work is so individual, and almost instantaneous as it is revealed, that the kids just beam about the art they have produced. As with so many other lessons, I found this one online and just tweaked it to fit my personality and teaching style. There really are a plethora of high quality teachers out there willing to share their ideas.

How do you respond when a student doesn’t understand your lesson?
When a student doesn’t understand a lesson, I’ve always just taught it again, and again, and again — with different examples and from different perspectives. With art, it is usually the technique that troubles the students as it is often the first time some students have used a particular medium. So, sitting down with students and breaking it down into smaller steps usually works well.

How do you get your class’s attention if students are talking or off task?

Rarely is the whole class off task, but usually when a student is off task I slowly walk by and refocus attention with a soft comment. However, if I need the attention of the whole class I’ll call out the first name of the artist we are currently studying, and have them call back — in chorus — the last name of that artist. Me: “Leonardo,” Students: “DaVinci.” They know that is the time to put down their tools and put their eyes on me.

How do you get to know your students and build relationships with them? What questions do you ask or what actions do you take?
It was so much easier when I was a classroom teacher to build relationships with the students. I saw the same students on a daily basis and could slowly develop that relationship as I learned more about their personalities and academic needs. Now, as an art teacher, I only see my students once every six days, so I have to make an effort to engage them outside the classroom as often as possible as well as in the studio. The cafeteria, in the hallway, at recess are all good times to just get to know the students.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.
I started my teaching career on the Navajo reservation and later moved to a small migrant community in Oregon. In both of these areas I was working with students of very different cultural backgrounds than the one I came from. I wouldn’t necessarily say that meeting the families of my students changed my perspective or approach, but it certainly gave me insight into my students lives that I could use to help me be a better teacher for them.

What are you reading for enjoyment?
The first book this summer I picked up was “The Generals: Patton, MacArthur, Marshall, and the Winning of World War II” by Winston Groom.

What’s the best advice you ever received?

My first principal and mentor, Ron Mansfield, told me to, “Watch the great teachers and learn.” Everything I know and do as a teacher I stole from someone else. I have my own personality and ways of doing things for sure, but being a good teacher has come by seeing how it is done by the best. Over 20 years I’ve had the opportunity to work with some tremendous people, and I’m so thankful that I’ve had the opportunity to learn the art of education from each and every one of them.

try try again

Why this Bronx middle school believes in second — and third — chances

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Vincent Gassetto, the principal M.S. 343, hugs a staff member after winning the Teaching Matters prize in July 2017.

Teachers at M.S. 343 in the South Bronx had a problem: Their lessons weren’t sticking.

Students initially would test well on fundamental concepts — such as multi-digit long division or calculating the rate of change. But that knowledge seemed to melt away on follow-up exams just months or even weeks later.

The solution that teachers developed, based on providing constant feedback to students and encouraging regular collaboration among staff, has helped M.S. 343 beat district averages on standardized tests. It has also landed the school a $25,000 prize.

This week, M.S. 343 won the Elizabeth Rohatyn Prize, which is awarded to public schools that foster great teaching. Presented by the nonprofit Teaching Matters, the award money will go toward building a digital platform that students and teachers can use to track their progress from anywhere, at any time.

The work at M.S. 343 starts with determining which skills teachers will emphasize and test throughout the year. Working together, teachers draw on what they already know about which concepts are most likely to trip students up, contribute to success in later grades or appear on standardized tests. A key concept could be understanding ratios in sixth grade or mastering scientific notation by eighth grade.

“It’s all in the teachers’ hands,” said Principal Vincent Gassetto.

Students are regularly tested with “learning targets.” But they’re also given three chances to prove they’ve mastered the skills. Gassetto said the approach is backed by neuroscience, which suggests the best way to learn is to use the knowledge multiple times, instead of cramming for a single test.

“That actually tells the brain: You’re being tested on this, it’s important. And that stores it in a part of the brain that’s easily retrievable,” he said.

Only the highest score will be recorded, which serves a different purpose: boosting students’ confidence in themselves as learners.

“We’re celebrating their progress, not necessarily the end result,” math teacher Lola Dupuy explained in a video the school produced. “It can be very confusing for a student to receive a failing grade and very discouraging for them if they don’t know … what they’re doing wrong and what they need to do to improve it.”

In between tests, each department comes together to analyze students’ answers. They zero in on common misconceptions and come up with a list of questions for students to ask themselves when reviewing their work.

Using the questions as a guide, it’s up to the students to figure out where they went wrong, often by working in groups with peers with varying skill levels.

“Students are more engaged in their work and the outcomes are better because they’re self-reflecting,” Dupuy said.

M.S. 343’s approach also gets at a common knock on testing: The results are rarely used to improve teaching and students often don’t have the opportunity to learn from their mistakes. At M.S. 343, teachers spend entire weeks meeting as a team to go over results and fine-tune their instruction. That time, Gassetto said, is a valuable resource.

“Most of the time, when you give a big assessment,” Gassetto said, “you’re testing, but for what purpose? We don’t do that. If we’re going to ask kids to sit down and take an assessment, we need to look at it and get it back to them right away, so it’s useful.”