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District ranks first in English Language Development

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Roaring Fork School District’s English Language Development program is ranked number one among the 55 districts in the state with similar percentages of students who are in the process of learning English. Carbondale Middle School teachers Grace De La Sala and Mary Hernandez spoke with The Sopris Sun about what has made their program so unique and effective. 

Since this interview was conducted, all classes now operate through distance-learning due to the coronavirus pandemic. Hernandez recently identified two major challenges to their ELD program as they’ve made this shift. First, when a student is trying to learn another language, “nothing can take the place of face-to-face dynamics and routines.” 

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Second, many students have been unable to participate in the distance-learning program because their families don’t have access to the internet. The district has been working with a team of bilingual volunteers led by Aspen Skiing Company to address this problem. They’ve successfully resolved internet issues for over 200 families and estimate that another 200 families still remain without internet access. 

In spite of these challenges, Hernandez and De La Sala are doing their best to continue the key elements of their program. One of the most essential aspects, De La Sala explained, is “putting kids before academics, knowing their stories… knowing when they’re not having a good day.” Kids need to feel safe and like they belong before they can fully focus their attention on their school work. The teacher-student relationship is key.

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Part of teachers’ ability to connect with students includes understanding the underlying reasons why a student may be misbehaving. When a student in an ELD classroom misbehaves, the teacher sends them to the “refocus area” of the classroom, “a comfortable, cozy area with ‘fidget toys’ where kids can go to de-escalate,” De La Sala said. “It’s not a punitive place.” 

The student is also asked to fill out a form which asks them to describe what happened, how their behavior is affecting others, and whether they’re feeling angry, hungry, lonely, and/or tired. “Often, they check all four,” De La Sala noted, and reviewing their responses with the teacher “really helps them process why they’re acting out.”

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Another fundamental aspect of the ELD program is using culturally-relevant texts for instruction. “We searched for texts where the kids could see themselves reflected in the literature,” Hernandez explained. “The typical curriculum uses literature that is written by white people about white people with middle class values and priorities.” Many of the students simply could not relate to these characters or their experiences. When the district made the switch, Hernandez saw a dramatic shift in her students’ level of engagement. 

One such text is “The Improbable Rise of Paco Jones,” about an eighth grade Latino boy attending a school with predominantly white, wealthy students. Each year, Hernandez assigns an essay about how Paco’s identity crisis is developed through narrative elements in the book. She has been continuously impressed with both the students’ level of motivation in writing the essays as well as the depth of their analyses.  

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Another important dimension of their approach, De La Sala explained, is “getting kids talking…rather than listening to teachers talking all the time.” Teachers provide the students with structures and tools to help them learn how to talk about books, how to generate and express their own ideas, and how to listen and respond to other students’ ideas.

“Translanguaging — leveraging the student’s first language to access their second language,” is also central to their program, Hernandez said. By encouraging students to read and think in their first language, students are more able to access the content being taught in math, social studies, etc., as opposed to falling behind in learning the content simply because their comprehension of the English language is limited.

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Translanguaging is now encouraged in all classes at the school. “It’s one more way that our district now validates and celebrates bilingualism,” Hernandez said.

Amy Fairbanks, Director of Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Education, spearheaded the process for creating the district’s unique ELD program. Starting about five years ago, she organized committees to create grade-level units across the district. While research had demonstrated the effectiveness of certain practices, there was not one program that pulled them all together into a curriculum that covered Colorado’s learning standards. Fairbanks and the ELD teachers set out to create a curriculum of their own.

This ambitious task took years to complete, but has definitely paid off. Students’ rising test scores, increased level of engagement, and fewer incidences of behavioral problems have been clear indicators of the program’s success.

Echoing their comments about the importance of respecting and valuing their students’ perspectives, Hernandez and De La Sala also noted how respected and valued they have felt as teachers by both CMS and the ELD department, and the impact that has had on their effectiveness as teachers.

“These past five years, I’ve felt extremely validated as a teacher,” Hernandez said. “I feel so supported by these two communities and I’ve grown a lot as a teacher because of them.”

“As teachers, we’re the ones in our schools who know these kids the best, and we’re the ones who know what’s best for them,” De La Sala added. “I really appreciate the flexibility of the program…It allows us to use our individual discretion and honors our judgement as teachers.”

Having outstanding teachers to implement the program is likely to be contributing to the program’s success at CMS as well. Hernandez was awarded Colorado ELD Teacher of the year in 2017 and De La Sala received this same honor in 2019. 

The two teachers were selected this year to give a joint presentation about the district’s program to ELD teachers and administrators across the state at last February’s annual Colorado Association for Bilingual Educators conference.

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