SalemNews.com, Salem, MA

November 23, 2012

Column: Changes on the horizon in Salem schools

Jaana Thorarensen
The Salem News

---- — In 2011, the Salem Public Schools were designated a Level 4 district by the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. This means that the district was identified as needing significant improvement according to state and federal guidelines. In response to this, the district has developed an Accelerated Improvement Plan with a focus on increasing student achievement for all students.

How has the English Language Learning department in Salem Public Schools started to address the district’s Accelerated Improvement Plan?

We started by re-examining how English as a Second Language services are provided and delivered to English-language learners, by looking at ways to improve services for students, and by providing professional development to teachers and administrators.

What was one of the first changes you made?

The enrollment of English-language learners has increased. In order to better meet their needs, one of the major changes has been the hiring of eight additional ELL teachers who have dual certifications in both ESL and a content area, a part-time language evaluator, a part-time bilingual parent liaison, and an ELL coach/data specialist. These professionals have been instrumental in providing additional services to ELL students, coaching support to teachers, as well as bilingual support to families.

What about the English Language Learner program that is in place? Is it adequate?

The ELL Department looked at the various ESL models that are in place in Salem, as well as in other districts. We wanted to know: What is working? Where? Are there models we can emulate? The ELL Department arranged for ELL teachers, mainstream teachers and administrators from several of our schools to visit other school districts, such as Malden, to see firsthand what the Sheltered English Instruction classrooms look like, what materials are being used, and what struggles and successes other districts have gone through. Salem teachers and administrators returned with renewed energy and inspiration to collaborate and discuss ways to improve instruction and services for ELL students.

What types of ESL services has Salem provided?

Several types of ESL services are provided to K-5 ELL students in Salem Public Schools. One type is “push-in” services, where the ELL teachers push in to the mainstream classroom to teach ELL students in small groups. Another type is “pull-out” services, where the ELL teacher pulls out a small group of ELL students to teach them in a small setting. Both these types of services are appropriate in districts with a low enrollment of ELL students, and for some students. However, Salem is now considered to be a high-incident district, since the ELL enrollment is currently 582, or 11 percent of the student population. In order to reach all students and to be compliant with the law, the district has looked at other models to increase services for ELL students.

How have programs changed?

As a result of the visits to other districts and the discussions that followed, a major change this year has been the implementation of Sheltered English Instruction classes for English-language learners in grades three, four and five at the Bentley School. The teachers in SEI classes focus on building and developing students’ social and academic language for beginning-level to low-intermediate-level ELL students. The vision is to expand the SEI model in the district and better provide students with the language and academic foundation they need to be successful in the mainstream classrooms.

How about older English-language learners, like those at Salem High?

Salem High School has also seen programmatic changes. New this year, the SIFE program (Students with Interrupted Formal Education) is being offered. These are students who (for economic, political or family reasons) have experienced schooling that is either limited or has been interrupted, and therefore they are behind grade level even in their own languages. The students in the SIFE program receive intense literacy and numeric instruction to develop their skills in math, English and Spanish. This program will provide students with stronger literacy and numeric skills they need in order to complete courses for graduation requirements.

Are programmatic changes and professional development all we need to do?

Changing the type of program itself is not enough for students to be successful. Everyone knows that a great teacher has the most impact on student learning. However, even a great teacher needs resources and materials to provide effective instruction. New this year is the use of materials that are appropriate for English-language learners at various proficiency levels and that are aligned to the Common Core State Standards.

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Jaana Thorarensen is the ELL director for the Salem Public Schools. This is one in a regular series of columns from the Community Advisory Board for the Salem schools.