Sobrato Philanthropies, funded through the real estate successes of the Sobrato family in Silicon Valley, has developed an innovative pre-K to third-grade capacity-building program for teachers to address the needs of English learner (EL) students, specifically Latino ELs. The Sobrato Early Academic Language (SEAL) model is a replicable model of professional development and program design aligned with Common Core standards that helps students to attain age-appropriate literacy in both English and their home languages (wherever possible) and a grade-level mastery of academic material—becoming more motivated, confident learners by the end of third grade.
Designed by Dr. Laurie Olsen, a national expert in EL education, the SEAL model is anchored by six research-based foundational components that infuse all aspects of teaching and learning throughout the school day:
- Alignment of preschool and the K–3 systems around a shared vision of powerful language development as the foundation for academic success—with support for transitions across systems and levels (including Summer Bridge programs);
- Simultaneous academic language and literacy (including bilingual options);
- Language-rich environments and instruction with an emphasis on expressive and complex oral language development and enriched vocabulary;
- Text-rich curriculum and environments that engage children with books and the printed word and lead to the appreciation and love of reading and writing;
- Language development through academic thematic units based upon science and social studies standards;
- An affirming learning environment that brings together teachers and parents to support strong language and literacy development at home and at school.
SEAL provides intensive professional development to preschool and elementary school teachers through workshop sessions, coaching, and collaborative reflection and planning. Through the model, teachers work together to create standards-based thematic units that support hands-on content-based learning grounded in science and social studies to help build background knowledge for students. Schools are required to purchase high-quality multilingual, multicultural books and materials for the classrooms. The model also supports parents in developing the language and literacy of their children at home and in the classroom.
After its initiation in 2008 and following a successful pilot phase in Silicon Valley, the SEAL model has expanded rapidly and is now being implemented in 20 districts, including Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), the nation’s second-largest public school district. Loyola Marymount University’s Center for Equity for English Learners (CEEL) received a $2.7 M federal grant to study SEAL implementation in LAUSD.
Hilda Maldonado, senior executive director of diversity, learning, and instruction for LAUSD, explains how her district is implementing the model:
“What makes SEAL different from other programs is that they have created a very comprehensive model of teacher development that takes into account the rate of learning for effective implementation that a teacher will need to learn to be effective for our second language learners. I’ll give you an example of what I mean by that—the framework starts off with the pedagogy and understanding that when you’re working with dual-language students, you need to begin with lots of oral language development, and so that’s the first module they take the teachers through. We go and observe; they come back; they tell us how it’s going; and we do a bit of a round of that before we go on to another module. Teachers are feeling very supported, they’re feeling that they are getting almost what they inherently know children need being validated through this process. And they’re also seeing children just being able to form a lot better this way.”
DW: So, the teachers go through a development program perform before they start?
HM: While they’re doing it, it’s almost like a job-embedded training. We take them in the summer when they have an induction program, and then once they start, we also provide them with a lot of resources that they’re going to need, like the types of books and hands-on materials.
DW: Are those provided by Sobrato?
HM: It’s a combination, and the grant is providing funding for some of that and some is being funded by our partnership with them, and our office is supporting some of that as well through what we would normally do for schools. But it’s just organized and so comprehensive that I definitely see how they are working it through.
DW: Do the teachers have a person they can consult with as they’re working?
HM: Yes, so as part of what I was describing in terms of how we have an opportunity to go see the teacher and check on how it’s going—we have coaches. I had coaches that I was overseeing that now are part of each local district. We have a partnership with our local district that’s implementing this. The development of these coaches alongside the teachers also helps to support the teachers, so the coaches are also a teacher support that we rely on to make sure the teacher is getting everything they need.
DW: How does it work with a big organization like LAUSD working with a small foundation?
HM: Right now, it’s part of a grant and we’re starting off small, so we are concentrating this effort into one of our six local districts and we chose four schools to do this. Part of the project, because it’s grant funded, is for us to measure the results, conduct an evaluation, and identify the effective pieces so that we can replicate that for other schools.
DW: What is the planned rollout?
HM: The plan is to review the findings. This is our first year. I’ve gone to see a classroom in Fillmore, for example, up north, and I got to visit classrooms and see those schools that are way ahead of us and experienced joyful, wonderful learning environments, rich with text and visual supports, rich with engaging and motivating activities for children and lots of collaboration, lots of talking going on. And I got to see a range, and the great thing about it too was that I also noticed that in one particular school that we went to they had a special ed teacher using many of the same supportive strategies that the gen. ed. teachers were using and the children were super engaged. It was just wonderful.
It’s a several-year study, and there’s a partnership with Wexford Inc. to conduct the evaluation. They have data—I can’t see the data, but then we have an advisory group for the project that meets on a regular basis with Wexford and with Loyola Marymount University [which is managing the grant], and we look over the results to date. Part of the evaluation will be to compare the schools where teachers are getting the SEAL PD with those that are not. Again, we started with only four schools, which is a small number for LA, but we wanted to be able to make sure that we learn. Teachers in these schools are getting above-and-beyond professional development through the SEAL project compared to other schools, where they may be getting also some professional development but it’s not a model that’s been defined. The comprehensive SEAL model is pretty autonomous when it comes to whatever curriculum you’re working. For example, in LA, we have the Benchmark program for reading for K–5, but in Fillmore, where they’re implementing the SEAL program, they have a different curriculum program. The professional development that they’re doing for teachers is comprised of approaches and strategies that are good teaching strategies for building academic language for English learners and others that don’t necessarily depend on the program. It’s a professional development framework, which is different than a curriculum program.
HM: Let’s say the district gives me books to teach my fourth graders. That’s my curriculum program, and the publisher wrote out a program—a way to teach it—but I go to the training that you provide, and you say, “I’m going to teach you a technique for how to get kids to talk about what they read.” You teach me a particular technique to use. Once I learn how to use that technique and how I can learn from kids, then it doesn’t matter which curriculum I use, now that I as a teacher I know that this technique will get me to understand kids better. I can apply it to any program. Now I have that tool as a teacher that I can take anywhere. I can go to another district where they have another program, and I can look at it and go “maybe I could use these” or “that doesn’t work” or go to the library and get these books and I’m going to use this technique that I know. It’s a framework, not a program, which is important. It’s important too to help teachers know how to do a better job of teaching and make them the experts. They’re not just going to do what they’re told to do, because that is not human based. Technique teaching is more human based. It remains to be seen if the SEAL model will be adopted throughout Los Angeles and further afield, but its success elsewhere, its adaptability, and its “human-based” approach look set to make it a winner.