Sowing Success

Kathy Pon, Irma Bravo Lawrence and Arturo Duran describe how a charter school in California’s Central Valley has reaped the benefits of becoming completely dual-language

Vivid recollections come to mind as we look back to 1998, when Proposition 227 was passed in California and English Language Learners (ELLs) were required to receive instruction in English for the majority of the instructional time during their first year in U.S. schools and perhaps a second year if needed. After this period of Structured English Immersion, according to the law, ELLs would theoretically be sufficiently fluent in English to be able to participate meaningfully in the mainstream classroom. National researcher and expert on the subject James Crawford responded with the following: “By a more reasonable standard, however, a preponderance of the evidence favors the conclusion that well-designed bilingual programs can produce high levels of school achievement over the long term, at no cost to English acquisition, among students from disempowered groups.” This conclusion is found in many studies, such as the work of Kenji Hakuta, 1998.

It was a devastating blow to educators that supported dual-language instruction because they understood how successful late exit dual-language programs had been. Research continued to confirm the benefit of such programs for ELLs as well as their English speaking counterparts. According to Pettito, Kovelman, and Baker: “Bilinguals learning to read in two languages might also have an advantage in grasping the symbolic nature of sound-to-letter correspondence, as a plethora of sounds in their two languages corresponds in a very multifaceted manner in their two writing systems.” In addition, these authors conclude through brain research, that metalinguistic awareness has been shown to develop faster and more effectively in bilinguals compared to monolinguals. However, in 1998, with the passing of Proposition 227, some local educational agencies saw it as the perfect opportunity to dismantle bilingual programs, and many did.

On the west side of Stanislaus County lies a town where the school district stands firm on the principle of preparing students for the 21st century. Bilingualism is seen as an asset, as enrichment, and beneficial for students, communities, and society in general. The dual-language program in the district continued at Grayson Charter School (part of Patterson Joint Unified School District), so it is important to share the struggle as well as celebrate the success of this school. It is a small, K-5 elementary school serving the rural neighborhoods of Grayson and Westley, seven miles north of the city of Patterson. The most striking aspect of the school campus is the way in which the simple and aged buildings come to life with beautiful, culturally appropriate murals. These murals include worn, but colorful replicas of villagers making music, children playing in the warm sun and mothers raising their hands to the sky. The staff and students are very proud of these artistic contributions to their home away from home.

Numbers cannot tell the entire story, but some facts help describe the cultural context of this school: According to California Basic Educational Data System (CBEDS), enrollment in October 2009 was at 250 students. Virtually all the students (97.3%) are Hispanic/Latino, and more than three-fourths (77.7%) are ELLs. Most (96%) of the students qualify for free/reduced lunch. Grayson’s significant subgroups are Hispanic/Latino, socioeconomically disadvantaged students, and ELLs. A very high percentage of students who fall into all three subgroups.
As for staff, 14 teachers are fully credentialed and one is an intern. They have an average of 5.8 years of teaching experience. All hold appropriate authorization to work with ELLs, and none is assigned outside an authorized subject area.

In 2001, Grayson Elementary was a 90-90-90 school but it received a paltry 493 from a possible 800 score on California’s Academic Performance Index (API) which is used to measure the academic growth of a school from one year to another. The 90-90-90 refers to schools with 90 percent free or reduced lunch, 90 percent ethnic minority, and 90 percent of the students meeting the district or state standards. Immediately, the school was identified as low performing for not meeting its annual yearly progress target set by the federal government’s Title 1 Program Regulations. Two years later it was one of the first schools in the county to enter into what was then titled NCLB’s “Program Improvement.”

Grayson initiated a 50-50 Dual Language Immersion program in 2002-03 to meet the expressed desires of parents and community members. This program’s goal then and now is for students to become bilingual and biliterate in Spanish and English, and to achieve at high academic levels on local (district benchmark) and state (California Standards Tests) assessments in both languages.

Nine years later, this dual language school has achieved a 770 API. Its 277 point gain clearly illustrates an unwavering dedication to improvement which has made it an example to other schools. District and county leaders attribute this dramatic growth to the current principal and staff’s commitment to academic rigor and determination not to compromise the goals of dual-language in their quest for improvement. The principal is an active participant in the Central Valley Dual Language Consortium, which meets regularly to plan ways to support dual-language program schools and parents. The Patterson Joint Unified School district has also fully supported its bold efforts that have clearly resulted in improved teaching and learning. The Superintendent of 11 years has been a staunch proponent of bilingual education. He has continually enlisted the support of Patterson’s School Board to provide such a program of excellence for the students of Grayson. Under his leadership, he created a dependent charter school in December of 1999 to make sure the necessary curriculum and instruction could be implemented for the dual-language program to succeed.

Student achievement at Grayson improved substantially from 2001 to 2005, but did not show the same level of improvement for the next two years. The API increased a total of 157 points between 2001 and 2006, but declined by 41 points over the next two year period. At that time, both site and district staff worked with private and county consultants to identify areas that needed more support and change and to, “stop the bleeding” as described by principal Arturo Duran.

Grayson attributes its success in overcoming the odds to a commitment to adapt the 50-50 model to increase student language proficiency and academic achievement. Its dual-language model is not one that is widely used in California. The model adopted was based on the philosophy that the students, who came almost entirely from Spanish speaking homes, should build on their home language and learn English simultaneously. Therefore, it gave equal weight to instruction in both languages, and students did not exit the program until after fifth grade, based on the research of Virginia Collier and Wayne Thomas, who describe how ELLs attending one-way dual-language programs performed outstandingly high in Spanish in the early grades. Their high achievement in Spanish significantly influenced their high achievement in English. After four years in a 50-50 program, students started reaching the 72 percentile in English on the Terra Nova exam.

While most dual-language programs were experimenting with 90-10 models, Grayson made a decision that students would be shared by two team teachers to achieve the 50-50 model. Students, in essence, have core subjects in one language one week and in the other language the next. This model has necessitated careful planning, as teachers need to communicate daily with each other to make sure they do not repeat lessons or units taught in one language or the other but, instead, build upon them. An unintended consequence of this high degree of collaboration has been that teachers are keenly focused on individual student’s needs every week. Decisions were made each week regarding what skills need to be integrated through the following week, against what students have mastered or not, thus saving instructional time. One of the most celebrated achievements for students at the school were the 4th grade writing scores, which were higher than those of peers in town from a school that received over 800 on the API. The fact that Grayson students’ manuscripts for the writing tests are in both English and Spanish is quite an accomplishment.

Early into the implementation of this model, it was evident that the academic test results and CELDT score were not increasing as expected. In 2007, Arturo Duran began to work with an outside consultant and with the Central Valley Dual Language Consortium experts to retool the 50-50 model. The decision was made to teach one additional core subject in English on a daily basis to give “an extra dose” of instruction in the English language. Mathematics was the subject that was chosen, and this modification rendered positive results. In addition in 2008, County Office of Education experts were brought in to strengthen the delivery of English Language Development and the use of Hampton-Brown’s Avenues materials. The rigor of the ELD lessons was increased as the staff became proficient in integrating an academic language focus, a fluency development component, and forms and functions of language into their daily lessons. These modifications to the instruction have strengthened the implementation of this 50-50 model.

Professional Development and Building Leadership Capacity
Staff development is an integral part of the school culture. Professional development continually improves and refines teachers’ knowledge, skills, and attitudes so they become effective in their role as teachers in a dual-language immersion program. Staff development has evolved at the school throughout the years as the school restructured its program under the demands of NCLB. It has been a major vehicle to provide training for teachers to assist them in adjusting their practices and effectively delivering grade level standards to students. It has progressed to an inquiry-based model where best practices and student data are studied and refined over time. This culture of support and collaboration among all staff has been one of the primary reasons for the dramatic increases in the API. It has also made professional development practice a major enterprise for all the teachers.
The peer coaching model is a specific professional development practice that has propelled the professionalism and instructional capacity of teachers at the school. Simply put, teachers learn from each other. The school uses peer observations, conferencing, and reflection to facilitate teacher learning. Peer coaching activities have the capacity to increase professional dialogue and foster trust among staff (Robbins, 1991). The model is based on trust, ownership, confidentiality, and a validation of professional expertise. It promotes professional growth in a nonjudgmental manner and has truly helped Grayson staff take the implementation of best practices to a deeper level.

Professional development could not have had such profound impact if not for the role of Grayson’s Literacy/English Learner Coach. Her job has many facets including professional development, facilitation of data analysis, and work with parents and family literacy. These contributions are so important that, even in tough budget times, the staff, the principal and the school district worked to keep her position.

Cycle of Inquiry and the Use of Data to Inform Instruction
The Cycle of Inquiry as practiced at the school is a systematic process of asking questions, identifying problems, setting goals, developing action plans, and analyzing outcomes using data. The Cycle of Inquiry is a process tool identified by the Bay Area School Reform Collaborative (BASRC) in 1996.

This deliberate process has allowed the teachers to discern cause and effect amid all that is happening in the school. This process helps teachers to make thoughtful, informed choices about instruction, interventions and programs. The school utilizes benchmark assessments to analyze student performance on an ongoing basis. For Grayson, it is essential that staff minimize “busy work” and document only the assessment data that can truly inform instruction. The cycle of inquiry consists of four phases. Below is a brief description of the four phases:

Teacher to Student Performance Chats
Teacher to Student Performance chats are structured meetings in which the teacher meets with every student to discuss how the student did on a curriculum embedded assessment. These meetings take about five to ten minutes per student. If necessary, a roving sub is brought in to assist the teacher in accomplishing this task. These meetings assist each teacher to have a clear picture of the levels of student achievement for every child in his/her class. It is also the place where discussions take place about how to individualize instruction for specific students who are not showing adequate levels of growth. Information attained from the chats guide discussion and decisions for the next phase. Teachers meet with each individual student at the beginning of each year to analyze his/her performance on the previous year’s CST. This analysis is broken in areas of strength and areas of future growth. A form is filled out that will constitute a student instructional action plan for the year.

Grade Level Meetings
Grade level meetings are structured gatherings in which the teacher meets with her/his grade level peers to discuss how students did on curriculum embedded assessments. The purpose of these meetings is to have instructors at specific grade levels form questions, identify problems and analyze outcomes. The results help identify strategies that are more effective for student learning or where re-teaching is needed. These meetings guide professional development in terms of identifying areas of need, and in some cases, guide the reallocation of resources.

Student Performance Meetings
Student performance meetings are structured so that the principal, coach and special education resource teacher meet with every teacher to look at classroom instructional practices. These meetings take approximately 20 minutes per teacher and require the use of a roving substitute teacher. The purpose of these meetings is to attain a clearer understanding of class performance and instructional practices within each classroom.

The Student Performance Meeting is the place to address any concerns the teacher might have. At the initial Student Performance Meeting, a summative information form and a detailed assessment log are used to help teachers organize information and reflect on the current realities in their classrooms. Here, the classroom information is also used as part of a larger collaborative accountability system with the district. The final two Student Performance Meetings are much more reflective in nature with the purpose of revisiting student achievement data and progress, and ensuring no student “fall through the cracks.”

Parent Involvement in Meaningful Capacities
While parents have always been highly visible at the school, over time there has been considerable work to create meaningful parent involvement. Grayson, as a rural school in a poor community, also houses a Family Resource Center, a Health Clinic, and a State Preschool on site. Parents, therefore, have always used the school as a one-stop shop to obtain health and nutrition resources and assistance with housing, as well as a source for early childhood education assistance. However, when the school became a Dependent Charter, the district helped to create the FAMA (Families and Agencies Moving Ahead) Council. In collaboration with the School Site Council, these groups form a joint advisory board for the site’s school plan, budget, and program improvement actions. This advisory board has provided parents a voice in the education of their children. While not always unanimously approving its goals and fiscal priorities, parents and representatives of Grayson agencies have been solid supporters of the dual-language program resulting in bilingualism and bi-literacy for their children.

The School Principal, Arturo Duran, has worked in two significant ways to build the capacity of his parent community. He has invited School Site Council members to learn about important instructional elements as those found in Direct Instruction and Special Designed Academic Instruction in English, and then assisted them in identifying the implementation of such practices through classroom visitations. This has promoted parent understanding of teacher expectations. For teachers, it has elevated the value of informing parents about the teaching-learning process. In 2008, Mr. Duran brought trainers from the Parent Information Resource Center to his school’s English Learner Advisory Committee to assist them in better defining the site’s parental involvement policy and goals. This has resulted in continued understanding and support for the program by parents. Even when given the option of School Choice through Program Improvement sanctions, not one parent has requested to transfer their child out of Grayson in seven years.

Last year, the school had the good fortune to be involved in a Toyota Family Literacy Program. Twenty parents each committed ten hours a week to the program activities, including six hours a week of English as a Second Language instruction, two hours of time in their children’s classroom, learning, side by side with their students, and two hours a week of parent seminar time. Early program assessment data is showing student attendance and achievement to be better than those of non-program participants, and parents are verbalizing their appreciation of the techniques they are transferring to the learning in their homes. Although still in its infancy, this program is certain to have a positive impact on the overall achievement of students.

Overall Ulitization of a Systems Approach and Commitment to Continual Improvement
Peer coaching has de-privatized the act of teaching and created a culture in the school of teachers as professional leaders. Staff development and teacher empowerment are at the core of this practice and are enhanced by allowing teachers the opportunity to interact as professionals and exchange ideas.

Improvement is not a single action in time, but the channeling of best practices from the many components of a system that creates energy and momentum and, ultimately, improvement. Grayson has spent considerable time defining the dual-language program and the optimal delivery of this program that will best meet the needs of its students. The principal and district have invested in the development of its staff to ensure excellent teaching. It has created a culture that uses data to ensure positive academic outcomes for its students. It has involved parents as true partners in its journey as a way to attain success for all. This is a systems approach to continual improvement and is the hope for the children of Grayson Charter School.

Crawford, J. (1998) “The Political Paradox of Bilingual Education. Language Policy Web Site & Emporium.” Social Justice 25, No. 3 (Fall 1998)
Hakuta, K. (1998) “Improving Education for All Children: Meeting the Needs of Language Minority Children.” Education and Development of American Youth Fifth Conference.
Kovelman, I., Baker, S.A. & Pettito, L.A. (2008) “Age of first bilingual language exposure as a new window into bilingual reading development.” Bilingual: Language and Cognition 11 (2). Cambridge University Press.
Collier, V. & Thomas, W. (2004) The Outstanding Effectiveness of Dual Language Education for All: NABE Journal of Research and Practice, 2:1 Winter 2004.
Robbins, Pam, “How to Plan and Implement a Peer Coaching Program,” Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, 1991

Kathy Pon is assistant superintendent, Educational Services, Patterson Joint Unified School District. Irma Bravo Lawrence is Director of English Learner Support Services, Stanislaus County Office of Education. Arturo Duran is Principal at Grayson Charter, Patterson Joint Unified School District.