In the Classroom

School districts use extra state aid to push new services for English learners

PHOTO: Scott Elliott
English language learning teacher Alison Fleischer works with refugee students in a small group at Nora Elementary School in Washington Township last year.

Suddenly having extra money is a good problem to have, and the director of Indianapolis Public Schools’ English language learning programs, Jessica Feeser, had it this summer.

She got busy planning to bolster the district’s support for children who are still learning English.

“It’s been so wonderful to get the increase in funding,” she said.

In April, a joint project by Chalkbeat, the Indianapolis Star and WFYI Public Media called Lost In Translation revealed dramatic growth in the number of English language learners in Indianapolis. In fact, Marion County has experienced a more than 200 percent growth in English learners since 2001 to about 13,000.

The series caught the attention of lawmakers, who doubled the dollars set aside in the state budget to support English language learning programs to $11 million just before the budget was approved. The new budget went into effect on July 1.

That meant school districts this summer got an unexpected bonus: about twice as much money starting this school year that immediately be used to add support English language learners.

Feeser and IPS quickly developed a plan. The district, which last year spent about $400,000 on English language learning programs, this year has $836,000 in state aid for English language learning.

The first thing the district did was speed up a plan to train teachers in what is known as the “Sheltered Instruction Observational Protocol” or SIOP, an intense program of instruction for classroom teachers that helps them craft lessons that work better for language learners, speak in ways that promote learning and better use non-verbal communication. Other schools have found the approach useful to improve learning as children also learn English.

The district has three English language learning specialists on staff now, Feeser said, but she plans to use some of the new funding to hire two more, including a SIOP and data specialist to help with that roll out.

In addition, Feeser set aside dollars for a project she is developing with Marian University that help district teaching assistants who are bilingual earn teaching credentials.

“I put funds aside, with this increase in funding, to support that to help pay the costs of tuition,” Feeser said. “These are people who work in our district who are committed to our students.”

That’s the sort of progress that state officials hoped to see come from the additional money, said Charlie Geier, who heads up the Indiana Department of Education’s work on English language learning.

“They’re being innovative,” he said. “That’s great. That’s exactly what we had envisioned.”

Haley Frischkorn, the English as a New Language program coordinator at Washington Township, said her district also saw per-student aid for English language learners double to $175 per student from $87 per student last year. Overall the district’s state aid for her program jumped to more than $304,000 this year from about $143,000 last year.

Like IPS, Washington Township used the money to hire new specialists to work as coaches to help teachers learn strategies to better help children who are still learning English at schools with large numbers of foreign-speaking students.

She hired two teachers who will work part time to support four elementary schools — Nora, Greenbriar, Spring Hill and Fox Hill. A third coach will work primarily at North Central High School but also provide support in middle schools.

“I could have hired a teacher, but that teacher can only be in one building,” Frischkorn said. “I thought this year we needed the flexibility to help teachers where needs arise.”

Classroom teachers need support because there just aren’t enough teachers training in English language learning to go around, she said. The ones assigned to elementary schools have caseloads that can exceed 100 students.

That means they can’t always provide as much support as classroom teachers need.

“They are doing their jobs really well but their kids have a lot of needs,” Frischkorn said.

Another outgrowth of the work to improving learning for English language learners is cross-district cooperation. Feeser and Frischkorn have started up a regular meeting of district directors that so far also includes Perry Township and Hamilton Southeastern, Frischkorn’s former employer.

They hope to expand the group so districts can learn more from each other.

“The dream is meeting with all the townships and IPS,” Frischkorn said. “It is so beneficial to hear what other people are doing and what their needs are.”

It’s only been three years that the state began holding collaboration meetings for directors of language learning programs, Geier said, so he’s glad to see the idea spreading to the local level.

The push for more services in Marion County has been mirrored in other parts of the state, he said. Even some of Indiana’s smallest districts are using the extra aid to try to improve the quality of their programs so language learners get proficient at English more quickly and also make faster gains in their academic subjects.

That’s important because Indiana expects to see even more English language learners over the next several years, he said.

“Across the state we are seeing people making really strong investments to meet current demand,” Geier said, “but also thinking about future demand from what the data is telling us that we will continue to see this grow potentially.”

getting in

Detroit district moves beyond test scores for admittance to elite high schools like Cass Tech and Renaissance

The Detroit school district is changing its application process for students hoping for a spot at selective high schools like Cass Technical High School.

Detroit’s main school district is changing the way it decides which students gain entry to the city’s elite high schools.

Students applying to Cass Technical High School, Renaissance High School and two other selective high schools will no longer be judged primarily on the results of a single exam.

Instead, an admissions team comprised of teachers and staff from the schools, as well as administrators in the district’s central office, will use a score card that gives students points in various categories.

Students can get up to 40 points for their score on the district’s high school placement exam, up to 30 points for their grades and transcripts, up to 20 points for an essay and up to 10 points for a letter of recommendation. Students already enrolled in the district will also get 10 bonus points that will give them an edge over students applying from charter and suburban schools.

That is a change over past years when  students with the highest test scores largely got automatic admissions to their top-choice schools. Other factors like grades, essays, student interviews, and letters of recommendations were typically only considered during an appeals process for students who didn’t make the first-round cut.

“You can imagine that there was a great deal of subjectivity to that, and if you’re a student who might not be a good test taker, you were at a disadvantage,” said Superintendent Nikolai Vitti, who, as a dyslexic, said he was not a strong test-taker in school.

“I can empathize with that gifted student whose intelligence is not always identified by a standardized test,” he said.

Vitti said he hopes the new process “will have more of a quality control … It’s a consistent process to ensure that we’re being equitable and fair when students are being enrolled in these schools.”

The district’s decision to reduce the role of testing in admission decisions mirrors a trend across the country where college admissions offices are increasingly moving beyond SAT and ACT scores to give more weight to grades and other factors in admissions decisions.

Cities like New York and Boston are reviewing their use of test-based admissions for their elite high schools in the face of an onslaught of criticism that the tests discriminate against students of color and students who come from poor families and reinforce already prevalent segregation in the districts.

“Tests tend to favor kids who come from backgrounds and whose families have the wherewithal to focus on test prep,” said Bob Schaeffer, the public education director at FairTest, an organization critical of schools’ reliance on test scores to make crucial decisions.

In addition to changing the admission criteria for Detroit’s selective high schools, the district is also for the first time requiring all district 8th-graders to take the exam. In the past, only students who applied to the top schools took those tests.

“Not every school emphasized the exam application process, so it would be dependent on an individual parent’s ability to navigate the system,” Vitti said.

Only about half of the district’s 8th graders took the exam last year. Data provided by the district show that several schools had just a handful of students take the test while others had dozens of test-takers. (See the full list of test-takers from district schools here.)

Vitti hopes that requiring 8th graders to take the test and encouraging more of them to write essays and gather letters of recommendation to apply will help prepare them to apply to college four years later.

“We’re creating a culture of college readiness,” he said.

Some parents and educators say they welcome efforts to make the application process more equitable.

Hope Gibson, the dean of students at Bethune Elementary-Middle School on the city’s west side, said students were excited when the school encouraged them to apply to the selective schools.

“They feel like we believe in them,” she said.

The changes, however, have put some families on edge as they worry about how the new approach will affect students’ chances at landing a spot in their first-choice school.

Aliya Moore, a parent leader at Paul Robeson Malcolm X Academy, a K-8 school that typically sends roughly half of its graduates to Cass and Renaissance, said parents had trouble getting information about the process and have been frustrated with Vitti and the school officials he brought to Detroit with him from his last job running schools in Jacksonville, Florida.

“I don’t like these new people coming here and criticizing our old ways,” said Moore, who graduated from Cass Tech in 1998 and has a daughter enrolled there now. “The district is now full of changes. Some are good, but some are like, if something is not broken, why are you trying to fix it? We support Dr. Vitti. We have nothing negative to say. But when you come in and you just totally dismantle what was, even if it was working, we don’t understand that.”

Among Moore’s concerns is the district’s use of  a new test this year, which makes it more difficult for the school to help students prepare. Also, this year’s test is being administered online while prior tests were on paper.

Vitti said the district is using a new test this year because last year’s exam wasn’t an option.

“The license expired years ago and the district was illegally using it,” he said.

The new test will be online, he said, though students with disabilities and other students whose parents request it will be allowed to take the test on paper.

The Detroit district now has four examination schools including Cass, Renaissance and Martin Luther King Jr. High School. The district this year converted Southeastern High School into an exam school after Southeastern returned to the district from five years in the Education Achievement Authority, a now-dissolved state-run recovery district.

How I Teach

From bikes to blue hair: how one Denver kindergarten teacher shares his passion with students

Andres Pazo, a kindergarten teacher at Denver's Maxwell Elementary, with his class.

How do teachers captivate their students? Here, in a feature we call How I Teach, we ask educators who’ve been recognized for their work how they approach their jobs. You can see other pieces in this series here.

Andres Pazo, a kindergarten teacher in an ESL Spanish class at Denver’s Maxwell Elementary School, doesn’t do things halfway. Before Denver Broncos home games, he’ll come to school with his face and hair painted orange and navy. For holidays or school book fairs, he wears full themed costumes. A passionate cyclist, he dresses in professional cycling gear to teach bike safety to children.

Pazo, who colleagues say has a smile for everyone he meets, received one of Denver Public Schools’ four Leadership Lamp awards last summer.

He talked with Chalkbeat about the teachers who inspired him to enter the field, why he uses secret codes to get his students’ attention, and how he gets to know students before school starts.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Why did you become a teacher?
I’m from Caracas, Venezuela, and decided to become a teacher during my last year in my country. For all the universities that I applied to, I put elementary education as my first choice, and I got accepted.

During high school, I had some teachers that impacted my life — I think because they taught with their hearts and reached mine. Hector Zamora was my geography teacher in college. He didn’t care about scores. He just wanted us to know, love, and feel geography. Also, I can add Evelia Mujica, my eighth grade biology teacher. She was super-strict and funny, but in the end, I think she just wanted us to love and really know about biology. These two still inspire me every single day to be a good teacher.

What does your classroom look like?
My classroom is a room where my students feel safe and loved, and where they try hard all year long. It’s also messy, and you can see many masks and hats that I use to engage my students in lessons, and, of course, their projects throughout the year.

Fill in the blank. I couldn’t teach without my _____. Why?
Motivation. It is what keeps me thinking of activities, projects, lessons, and ideas so my students enjoy anything that they need to learn.

What is one of your favorite lessons to teach? How did you come up with the idea?
My favorite lesson to teach is a writing unit at the end of the year, called “All About.” I always bring in things that I love — like my bikes — and write about them. I let students write about any small moment: about something that they love, the food their parents make, a family trip, a family visiting them, a good or sad day … anything they would like to share. They usually bring in their favorite toys.

The students’ writing is amazing because they apply everything they’ve been learning. They try so hard to write everything about their toys. You can hear them sharing their stories with others, and their pictures are incredible. Writing is a good indicator of how much they have grown during the school year.

How do you respond when a student doesn’t understand your lesson?
I sit with him or her after the lesson is taught and work on the skill that needs to be mastered.

How do you get your class’s attention if students are talking or off task?
I use a lot of “secret codes” with my students. For example, when I say “mustache code,” they put a finger across their upper lips. They can be working, reading, or playing, and when I say it, I have 100 percent of students’ attention right away.

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 starts before the first day of class. I usually write letters to them or do home visits. I take the first two weeks of school to get to know them and what they like to do. I take time to welcome them so they can feel safe and confident in the classroom.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.
When I was working at Denver Center for International Studies at Ford, we started a home visiting program. We first thought parents didn’t have time for us or that they didn’t want to take the time. But, once we started making the calls and found that parents wanted us to come, we understood that parents didn’t know about the program. After that, some parents became more involved in their kids’ education and with the school.

What are you reading for enjoyment?
A lot of mountain bike reviews about bicycles, parts, or trails to ride.

What’s the best advice you ever received?
Never change my personality.