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City, county schools surpass state English language learner targets

POSTED: November 16, 2008 5:00 a.m.
SARA GUEVARA/The Times

Third-grade teacher Michelle Smallwood teaches her class Wednesday at Jones Elementary School. During the 2007-2008 school year, Hall County schools' English language learners demonstrated improved academic proficiency.

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Recently released test scores show both Hall County and Gainesville schools’ English language learners exceeded state targets for English proficiency progress in the 2007-2008 school year.

Hall County and Gainesville schools passed all three annual measurable achievement objectives under No Child Left Behind pertaining to the performance of limited English proficient students last school year.

Results from the annually administered ACCESS English Language Proficiency Test reveal 69.9 percent of the Hall County school system’s English language learners, or non-native English speakers, progressed at least one level toward English proficiency between the 2007 and 2008 state ACCESS tests. In the Gainesville school system, 57 percent of students advanced one level toward proficiency.

The state’s goal for the 2007-2008 school year was for 47 percent of English language learners in school districts to advance at least one level.

The state also aimed for 5 percent of every school districts’ students to become entirely proficient in English. Seven percent of Hall County English language students and 6.9 percent of Gainesville English language students were deemed English proficient according to the 2008 ACCESS test.

And both school systems made "Adequate Yearly Progress" in the English language learner sub-group under No Child Left Behind.

Laura Herrington, the English for speakers of other languages director for Gainesville schools, said 1,500, or nearly 25 percent, of the school system’s roughly 6,300 students do not speak English as their first language.

She said there are slightly more English language learners enrolled in the city’s elementary and middle schools than at Gainesville High School.

She said the city school system’s largest concentration of non-native English speakers is at Fair Street International Baccalaureate World School and at Gainesville Exploration Academy, where about 300 English language learners are enrolled at each school.

"In order to be successful in the mainstream classroom, the normal classroom, you have to be proficient (in English)," Herrington said. "If you’re not proficient in English, I don’t know how a child could be successful because all of our tests are in English."

The Georgia High School Graduation Test and the state’s Criterion-Referenced Competency Test are in English. Students’ performance on these tests dictate whether their school system meets AYP, whether they graduate from high school and sometimes whether they are promoted to the next grade.

Although the ACCESS test was first administered in the 2005-2006 school year, Herrington said this year is the first school districts in Georgia are able to determine whether their English for speakers of other languages, or ESOL, programs are really working.

"The data is just now coming back to us for the first time and we’re very proud of our programs and our students," she said.

The Gainesville school system uses ESOL teachers in classrooms to help students with their language skills as other teachers teach content from the state curriculum. English language learning students are often broken out of their main classrooms each school day to work with an ESOL teacher and other students who are on their same English speaking level to develop their English speaking, listening, reading and writing skills.

Herrington said the ACCESS test is helping school districts to track the progress of English language learners and improve teaching strategies.

Sandra Perry, the ESOL director for Hall County schools, said it’s a challenge for teachers to get non-native English students to understand the academic language necessary to be successful on tests. Even in the math and science portions of standardized tests, understanding English is required for stimulus questions.

To assist Hall County students in expanding their English vocabulary skills, an English language learner program called Sheltered Instruction Observation Protocol, or SIOP, was implemented at Jones Elementary School in August 2007.

Perry said the program’s approach allows teachers to break down the requirements of the state curriculum in digestible lessons for English language learners. She said the program has been fruitful so far at Jones Elementary, where Jones Elementary Principal Hank Ramey said more than 90 percent of students are English language learners. The program’s method is a more definitive research-based framework than the traditional ESOL approach and is now currently being implemented at West Hall High School, Perry said.

Michelle Smallwood, a third-grade teacher at Jones Elementary School, said she often reviews vocabulary used on standardized tests such as "identify" and "infer" in an effort to get her students to pass the spring CRCT. If third-graders do not pass the CRCT, they are not promoted to the next grade.

Smallwood said of her 17 students, one is a native English speaker. Another student speaks Vietnamese at home and English in the classroom, and the remainder come from a Hispanic background. She said the native Spanish students run the gamut in their English abilities from near fluent to knowing very little English. Smallwood said one student just moved to Hall County from Mexico this school year, but has been making great strides in her English speaking abilities.

Smallwood’s students struggling with English receive additional help in the classroom from ESOL teachers, who help students in the classroom and provide additional help for students in break-out groups. Perry said on the middle and high school level, English language learners receive portions of sheltered instruction, which provides students visual and graphic organizers to boost their understanding.

Each morning, Smallwood enters the classroom and teaches the state curriculum in English only. She said she sees students progressing with the Sheltered Instruction Observation Protocol method, and likes using it herself.

"They’re smart. And they know I expect as much of them (the English language learners) as from any other student," Smallwood said. "They know they have to work harder. They have the same standards to achieve. I try to instill in them, you can."

Herrington said the Gainesville and Hall County school systems were two of only 45 school districts of 186 total school districts in the state to meet all three annual measurable objectives for English language leaners last school year. In addition, she said both local school systems were two of only 11 across the state that had more than 1,000 English language learners take the ACCESS test.



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