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Helping English-Language Learners

Problem: An ever growing number of English-Language Learners entering the Salida Union School Distri

Problem: An ever growing number of English-Language Learners entering the Salida Union School District in California had school officials trying to find a way to raise students' academic performance scores. Administrators were challenged to do this without draining classroom teacher time or pulling the students from important core curriculum classroom instruction. Mindful of the No Child Left Behind act and the need to raise test scores, school officials set a goal of achieving 800 on a scale of 1,000 points by 2006.

Solution: The district, through federal grant programs and community donations, established the Los Arcos Learning Center for ELL students and their families. The center, located in a converted 1,000-square-foot woodshop in a community park, provides reading, math and English language support services for 90 K-8 students and 30 family members each day.

Programs for students and families start before school, run through the day and into the evening. Children who attend the program after school have 90 minutes of instructional time that includes 30 minutes working on math or reading skills with software material by LeapFrog, 30 minutes working on language proficiency with AutoSkill software and 30 minute working with trained teachers.

Students in the program are seeing gains of 2-2.5 grade levels in just 25 hours of time on task, according to Mark Walker, director of curriculum. In addition, 43 percent of those attending the program met the target for language development. Only 23 percent of ELL students not in the program met the target, Walker says.

The district has been so pleased with the results that it is expanding the program and will have centers at four elementary schools in the district and one at the middle school. Walker said the program has also been replicated at least 10 other districts in the region.

In the past decade, the number of ELL students in Salida has risen from 12 percent to 18 percent of the student population, or about 600 out of 3,500 students. More than a dozen languages are spoken by students in the district, ranging from Russian to Farsi, though a majority speak Spanish. In California, about one-fourth of the student population is ELL students.

Walker says the district wanted to increase reading and English proficiency by providing instruction that was challenging and not repetitive of what was already being done in the classroom.

Teachers Make the Difference

To help run the program, the district hired part-time and retired teachers to help students with one-on-one instruction in language acquisition. To identify students in need of the program, school officials track student scores on language proficiency tests. Students who don't meet basic proficiency levels under NCLB standards, or fall behind two years on language levels, are recruited for the program.

In the program, the children have the opportunity to get extra help with particular language problems and learn the conversational English they will need in their daily life.

The program, which has a 95 percent attendance rate, has a waiting list with more than two dozen students.

Fran Silverman is a contributing editor.

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