In the Classroom

School districts use extra state aid to push new services for English learners

PHOTO: Scott Elliott
English language learning teacher Alison Fleischer works with refugee students in a small group at Nora Elementary School in Washington Township last year.

Suddenly having extra money is a good problem to have, and the director of Indianapolis Public Schools’ English language learning programs, Jessica Feeser, had it this summer.

She got busy planning to bolster the district’s support for children who are still learning English.

“It’s been so wonderful to get the increase in funding,” she said.

In April, a joint project by Chalkbeat, the Indianapolis Star and WFYI Public Media called Lost In Translation revealed dramatic growth in the number of English language learners in Indianapolis. In fact, Marion County has experienced a more than 200 percent growth in English learners since 2001 to about 13,000.

The series caught the attention of lawmakers, who doubled the dollars set aside in the state budget to support English language learning programs to $11 million just before the budget was approved. The new budget went into effect on July 1.

That meant school districts this summer got an unexpected bonus: about twice as much money starting this school year that immediately be used to add support English language learners.

Feeser and IPS quickly developed a plan. The district, which last year spent about $400,000 on English language learning programs, this year has $836,000 in state aid for English language learning.

The first thing the district did was speed up a plan to train teachers in what is known as the “Sheltered Instruction Observational Protocol” or SIOP, an intense program of instruction for classroom teachers that helps them craft lessons that work better for language learners, speak in ways that promote learning and better use non-verbal communication. Other schools have found the approach useful to improve learning as children also learn English.

The district has three English language learning specialists on staff now, Feeser said, but she plans to use some of the new funding to hire two more, including a SIOP and data specialist to help with that roll out.

In addition, Feeser set aside dollars for a project she is developing with Marian University that help district teaching assistants who are bilingual earn teaching credentials.

“I put funds aside, with this increase in funding, to support that to help pay the costs of tuition,” Feeser said. “These are people who work in our district who are committed to our students.”

That’s the sort of progress that state officials hoped to see come from the additional money, said Charlie Geier, who heads up the Indiana Department of Education’s work on English language learning.

“They’re being innovative,” he said. “That’s great. That’s exactly what we had envisioned.”

Haley Frischkorn, the English as a New Language program coordinator at Washington Township, said her district also saw per-student aid for English language learners double to $175 per student from $87 per student last year. Overall the district’s state aid for her program jumped to more than $304,000 this year from about $143,000 last year.

Like IPS, Washington Township used the money to hire new specialists to work as coaches to help teachers learn strategies to better help children who are still learning English at schools with large numbers of foreign-speaking students.

She hired two teachers who will work part time to support four elementary schools — Nora, Greenbriar, Spring Hill and Fox Hill. A third coach will work primarily at North Central High School but also provide support in middle schools.

“I could have hired a teacher, but that teacher can only be in one building,” Frischkorn said. “I thought this year we needed the flexibility to help teachers where needs arise.”

Classroom teachers need support because there just aren’t enough teachers training in English language learning to go around, she said. The ones assigned to elementary schools have caseloads that can exceed 100 students.

That means they can’t always provide as much support as classroom teachers need.

“They are doing their jobs really well but their kids have a lot of needs,” Frischkorn said.

Another outgrowth of the work to improving learning for English language learners is cross-district cooperation. Feeser and Frischkorn have started up a regular meeting of district directors that so far also includes Perry Township and Hamilton Southeastern, Frischkorn’s former employer.

They hope to expand the group so districts can learn more from each other.

“The dream is meeting with all the townships and IPS,” Frischkorn said. “It is so beneficial to hear what other people are doing and what their needs are.”

It’s only been three years that the state began holding collaboration meetings for directors of language learning programs, Geier said, so he’s glad to see the idea spreading to the local level.

The push for more services in Marion County has been mirrored in other parts of the state, he said. Even some of Indiana’s smallest districts are using the extra aid to try to improve the quality of their programs so language learners get proficient at English more quickly and also make faster gains in their academic subjects.

That’s important because Indiana expects to see even more English language learners over the next several years, he said.

“Across the state we are seeing people making really strong investments to meet current demand,” Geier said, “but also thinking about future demand from what the data is telling us that we will continue to see this grow potentially.”

In the Classroom

How an Indianapolis teacher is making fourth grade more like a video game

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Guillermo Perez, right, finished nearly all of his assignments from their class game at home in his free time.

The tension was rising in Amanda Moore’s class. Fourth graders were facing off against a dragon-like Sea Raptal, and it was a close fight. Victory hung in the balance.

“What is the universal theme of our text?” asked Moore, calling on a boy to explain a story students had been reading in small groups. His answer — to treat others as you want to be treated — was correct, leading to the defeat of the monster, and causing the class to erupt in chatter and cheers.

All this excitement is because of “gamification,” a new approach Moore recently began using in her fourth-grade class at Chapelwood Elementary School in Wayne Township. With the help of an online platform called Classcraft, which allows students to inhabit characters, earn points, and complete quests, Moore designs adventures that entice students to practice math and reading skills.

Gamification is a growing trend in education that aims to use games to engage students in school work. Critics, though, raise concerns about students spending too much time on screens and the quality of the games. But games are becoming increasingly popular among teachers, and research suggests that games can improve student scores in subjects such as math and history.

Moore, who has taught at Chapelwood for a decade, learned about gamification recently while completing a master’s degree in curriculum and education technology at Ball State University. Since she started using games to teach in January, it has totally transformed the class, Moore said. Now, she is building positive relationships with students because she is playing games with them.

“We forget that kids are kids, and they want to play. And they are motivated by play, and they learn through play,” she said. “Gamification allows us to get back to that a little bit.”

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Characters from an adventure that’s helping Chapelwood elementary school students master reading skills.

This week is spring break, so Moore is working with a group of students who are slightly below grade level in reading for intersession. When the week began, Moore told the students that they were on a magical boat that was shipwrecked. As a class, they must collect enough crystals for their ship to set sail again.

In part, the game is based online, and students can bring laptops from school and keep playing at home. There is an adventure map, and every student has a character. Students can earn points online by completing assignments where they practice making inferences and identifying themes, and Moore can see how they are progressing. But the game is also the backdrop for other work, and the class sometimes comes to a halt when students face random events, where they can win or lose points.

“It’s fun because you can learn while you are playing a game,” said Lilly Mata-Turcios, a student in the class.

Since Moore started using online gaming, students have been more engaged, and they’ve continued to do school work at home so they can win rewards such as new armor for their characters or pets, she said. The class has built a strong community because students have to work together to defeat monsters like the Sea Raptal, Moore said.

“It’s a model of what personalization can look like in a blended classroom,” said Michele Eaton, the district director of virtual and blended learning.

During most weeks, students spend about an hour each day completing math and reading assignments through Classcraft. Moore also works with small groups and does instruction with the whole class. But everything they do takes place against the backdrop of their adventure.

“I think it’s just a really powerful way to teach,” Moore said. “It is absolutely worth the time.”

thrown for a loop

Elementary school teachers sometimes follow a class of students from year to year. New research suggests that’s a good idea.

PHOTO: Denver Post file
Student Jaela Manzanares gets reading help from substitute teacher Colleen Rys in her third-grade class at Beach Court Elementary School in Denver.

When Kim Van Duzer, an elementary school teacher in Brooklyn, had a chance to follow her students from third to fourth grade the next school year, she jumped at the opportunity.

“It was such a positive experience,” she said. “One of the big advantages is starting in September hitting the ground running — you already know the kids and the things they did the previous year and the things they need to work on.”

Now, a new study seems to confirm Van Duzer’s experience. Students improve more on tests in their second year with the same teacher, it finds, and the benefits are largest for students of color.

Repeating teachers is “a beneficial and relatively low-cost policy that should be given due consideration,” write the researchers, Andrew Hill of Montana State University and Daniel Jones of the University of Southern Carolina.

The paper focuses on North Carolina students in grades 3 to 5 who had the same teacher two years in a row. That usually occurred not when a whole class repeated  with the same teacher — what’s often called “looping” — but with a small share of students ending up with the same teacher twice, for whatever reason.

How much did that second year with a teacher help? The overall effect was very small, enough to move an average student from about the 50th to the 51st percentile. But even this modest improvement is notable for several reasons.

First, it’s a policy that, at least in theory, doesn’t cost anything or require legislation to implement. Schools, if they choose to, could make looping a habit.

Second, the gains were larger for kids of color than for white students, suggesting that this could make a slight dent in longstanding test-score gaps.

Third, the students who saw the biggest gains had teachers who were lower performing overall, suggesting that having the same students twice may be particularly useful for helping teachers improve.

Fourth, it’s an idea that could affect a lot of students. Just being in a class where many peers were repeating with a teacher seemed to benefit kids who were new to the teacher, the study finds. The researchers think that could be because those teachers’ classroom environments improve during that second year with many of the same students.

That aligns with Van Duzer’s experience, when she had a handful of new students in her looped class. “The other kids were really welcoming to them, and they became fully integrated members of our class community,” she said.

Fifth, there may be other benefits not captured by test score gains. For Van Duzer, being able to pick up existing connections with students’ families was another perk. “It takes a school year to fully develop a relationship with kids and their parents — for everybody to get to know each other, to develop trust, to be able to speak really openly,” she said.

One important caveat: the study can’t prove that if looping were expanded, that the benefits would persist. Past research also isn’t much of a guide because there’s so little out there, but what exists is consistent with the latest study.

A recent analysis found students in rural China scored higher on tests as a result of the approach. Here in the U.S., the best evidence might come from what amounts to the reverse of the policy: having teachers of younger students focus on a single subject, and thus not have a single class of students. In Houston, this led to substantial drops in student test scores and attendance.

These studies suggest early grade teachers do better when they “specialize” in a small group of students, rather than a certain academic subject.

To Van Duzer, who now serves as a math coach at her school, having a firm understanding of what students learned the previous year is crucial and helps explain the findings.

“A lot of times when kids move into a new grade, the teachers are like, ‘You learned this last year!’ and the kids are like, ‘We did?’” she said. “But then if you say certain words … you remind them of certain experiences, like ‘Remember when we studied China and we talked about this?’ and then they’re like ‘Oh yeah, I do remember.’ But if you haven’t been there with them for those experiences, it’s harder to activate that knowledge.”