SalemNews.com, Salem, MA

November 30, 2012

Column: Changes on the horizon in Salem schools

Jaana Thorarensen
The Salem News

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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.

You’ve begun to modify the program and have purchased new materials — what else needs to be done?

An additional major focus this year has been to train all educators and administrators in the World-Class Instructional Design and Assessment standards. The focus of the five WIDA standards is to develop students’ academic language across disciplines. The English-language learners department has been busy training educators and administrators with an introduction to the WIDA standards. Approximately 175 educators have been trained so far; our goal is to reach 350 this school year. This training will give teachers some of the tools they need to teach every ELL student at their level of proficiency.

Do English-language learners take the MCAS, too? Wouldn’t that be hard without having proficient English?

ELL students do have to take the MCAS, and yes, it is very challenging to take a rigorous test in your second language. However, English-language learners also take a state-mandated test that measures their English-language abilities. The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education is not only changing to the WIDA standards, but it is also changing the assessment that is used to measure English-language learners’ progress and achievement. In January 2013, the new assessment, ACCESS, will be used for the first time to measure students’ academic language on the WIDA standards.

Are there additional supports for students, outside of the regular school day?

Another program offered by the ELL department is an after-school program for high school ELL students who need additional support to be successful in their academic classes. This program is offered after school on Tuesdays and Thursdays between 2:15 and 3:15 p.m., and is funded through Title III funds that the district receives for ELL students.

Recently, we were happy to collaborate with Salem State University to provide (at no cost to the district) after-school tutoring for ELL students at the Bowditch School by students in a Salem State ESL course.

The ELL department is also planning for ELL summer programs. One will be offered to ELL students in grades K through five, and another is for middle school ELL students. Both of these programs will be offered for four weeks, four days per week. Free transportation will be offered, and, hopefully, it will help families take advantage of these programs.

High school ELL students will also be offered a summer program. The ELL department has been collaborating with Salem State University, Northshore Regional Readiness Center, the National Parks Service, the Essex National Heritage Commission, the Peabody Essex Museum and Salem CyberSpace in applying for the Gateway City Grant, which will fund an ELL Summer Academy “Salem at SEA.” This program will be offered to high school ELL students entering grades nine through 11. It will run for four weeks, four days per week. We are hopeful that our proposal will be accepted and that this new program will offer ELL students an engaging yet educational setting to continue their learning over the summer months.

How about working with English-language learner families?

In addition to implementing program changes and offering professional development to educators, the district’s ELL department is offering classes to parents who are English-language learners. There are two adult ESL classes two evenings each week. One class is for beginning-level English-language learners, and the other class is for intermediate learners. They meet on Tuesday and Thursday nights from 6 to 9 p.m. at Salem High School.

We are also continuing to work to bring our ELL parents into partnership with the schools, by organizing parent meetings, coffee hours and other events, which are offered in more than one language. We discuss ways that parents can help their students who are English-language learners at home, and ways that the school and parents can work better together.

Needless to say, the ELL department and the Salem Public Schools had a busy year implementing several new initiatives in 2011-2012. This year, we will continue our efforts. As mentioned above, we are eager to ensure that all Salem Public Schools staff receive training in the WIDA standards, and we are also looking forward to additional program adjustments, possibly expanding the Sheltered English Program, addressing the needs of the Dual Language Program, and expanding our work with supports in the community and among parents. Taken together, we hope to bring positive changes for students, for families and for the Salem Public Schools district.

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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.