EDGEWATER — Along with standard worksheets with equations to solve, Ali Goecks’s math students this fall will be given a list of terms like “integer” and “product” to master.
Her students at Jefferson Junior-Senior High School, most of whom are Latino and come from low-income homes, will be required to use those sophisticated terms to explain their work in class discussions and homework. Lesser synonyms like “number” and “answer” won’t work.
At a cluster of academically lower-performing schools getting renewed attention in Jefferson County, teachers are expanding efforts to boost the academic vocabulary of their students.
The goal: to improve their chances to perform well on new standardized tests that emphasize critical thinking and prepare them for tougher courses to come.
“By focusing on the language behind math and the meaning of these words, students can focus on the purpose of math,” Goecks said. “They can understand the ‘why.’ It’s not just memorization. It’s something more.”
The challenge of incorporating higher-level language skills is a new test for a historically middle-class suburban school district adapting to a changing student population.
The predominantly Latino and low-income students who attend the schools just west of the Denver city limits, are likely to begin their educations knowing fewer words than their more affluent and white peers in the school district. The fear is that without consistent learning and reinforcement from teachers, the vocabulary gap will only widen by graduation.
“In general, students in this area don’t come from language-rich environments,” said Robin Techmanski, a Jeffco Public Schools achievement director who oversees schools in Edgewater, home to three of the four schools.
Why ‘academic language’ is important
Too often students with limited vocabulary underperform on classroom assignments and critical standardized tests, said Moker Klaus-Quinlan, a senior director of education at the Public Education and Business Coalition, a Denver-based teacher training nonprofit.
“They won’t realize what they’re being asked to do,” Klaus-Quinlan said. “So what it looks like they can do on an assessment is not actually reflective of their ability.”
The results can provide teachers, principals and state officials with inaccurate information that can compromise the entire system. Students may be placed in the wrong classrooms or may act out, frustrated with communication barriers.
“When anxiety goes up, the learning goes down,” said John Ramo, CEO of the Colorado-based Digital Directions International, a software firm that has created math curriculum for English language learners.
On the other hand, Ramo said, if students get a handle on more complex language, not only will it be an ego boost, they’ll be able to use that knowledge regardless of what class they’re in.
“Having the ability to understand a concept improves self-efficacy as well,” Ramo said. “This language will help transfer learning skills to other domains.”
More than one classroom
Providing students with an elevated vocabulary is one of several efforts to boost student learning at the cluster of four Jefferson County schools. Teachers from the schools, which have bounced on and off the state’s accountability watch list for poor academic performance, met last week to network and brainstorm teaching strategies for the year.
Ideas included covering walls with a wide range of higher-level words to daily vocabulary lessons in every subject.
“It can’t just be in one classroom,” one teacher said during the meeting.
That won’t be the case, district officials said.
A committee of parents, teachers, and administrators from all four schools will meet to develop one set of goals for the area.
Teams of teachers will use student testing data to refine strategies throughout the year.
Teachers will spend more time monitoring other teachers with proven track records of boosting student achievement.
And teachers will also receive more training days than their district peers.
“We can do this better if we do it together,” said Goecks, the math teacher. “It’s a little less daunting when you know you have a community to support you in this.”
Assumptions and turnover
On paper, 43 percent of students who attend a school in Edgewater are learning English as a second language. But the number of students who need more help in developing their vocabulary is probably much greater, which teachers must be aware of, said Klaus-Quinlan.
“We want to be conscious of the language we expect students to use and teach that explicitly,” Klaus-Quinlan.
She said it’s appropriate for teachers to use common language with students at first to establish understanding. But then they never move students forward with more sophisticated terms.
“That’s robbing the students of the ability to have academic conversations,” she said.
Higher teacher turnover at the four Jeffco schools is another obstacle to the effort. Crucial training, like the week’s worth in August, must be replicated each year.
“We need to explicitly identify the mindset and key characteristics of teachers who want to be here,” said Karen Quanbeck, a Jeffco achievement director who oversees the schools in Edgewater.
Update: This article has been updated to clarify the name of the Public Education and Business Coalition.