ELL students learn all year long at Palm Springs USD

Practicing English skills before or after school, on Saturdays and during breaks
By: | May 24, 2017

Palm Springs USD helps English language learners find success with an extended instructional program that allows students to practice their English skills before or after school, on Saturdays and during breaks. It could be a recipe for other districts.

The three-year-old program targets newcomers, long-term ELLs and students who qualify as early advanced or advanced on the California English Language Development Test, says Mandy Gonzales, a Palm Springs USD teacher.

Weeklong vacations and summer breaks can set students backward in language development, says Eric Antuna, coordinator of English learner programs for Palm Springs USD. Now, these students can practice their language skills with classes such as ceramics and dance.

“Giving students the electives really gives them something to write about, speak about, tell their classes about” Antuna says.

The year-round program was inspired by the work of Laurie Olsen, director of the Sobrato Early Academic Language model, a pre-K through 3 initiative of the Sobrato Family Foundation that develops the language and literacy skills of Spanish-speaking English learners.

Olsen’s research recommends more time in school, smaller classes, and highly motivating and engaging activities, Gonzales says.

Extended school year opportunities for ELLs at Palm Springs USD include:

Before- and after-school intervention. Students in grades 4, 5 and 8 can practice speaking in and listening to English in small groups of six to 10 children. The program extends the school day by 40 to 60 minutes.

The intervention is based on need, Gonzales says. ELLs tend to start to become long-term ELLs in grades 4 and 5, and the goal for grade 8 students is to provide extra support so students can be reclassified as fluent English speakers before entering high school.

Newcomer Wednesdays. Every Wednesday, middle schools end the day early and high schools start late.

Students who have been in the country for less than 24 months can get help with homework from paraprofessionals or bilingual community liaisons, and from an online service, Tutor.com. Parents can also meet face-to-face with teachers.

Saturday classes. One Saturday per month, students in grades 3 through 8 and newcomers in grades 3 through 12 can participate in the Growth Mindset Academy at Cathedral City High School.

The four-hour program provides classes in literacy, science, art and dance. It also offers PD for teachers, who can watch a live lesson and then teach it.

Winter, spring and summer sessions. During winter, spring and long summer breaks, students can take classes in language arts, science, art, dance, physical education and Spanish at Cathedral City High School. The school day runs more than five hours, from 7:45 a.m. to 1:15 p.m., during weeklong sessions.

Summer Bridge. Any ELL student can practice their English skills by accessing online programs such as Dreambox and Lexia during the month of July at Cathedral City High School, Desert Hot Springs Parent Center, or even one of the mobile home parks, named Casa del Sol.

High school students can also receive five English language development credits if they complete the weeklong summer session and log 20 hours.

Participation varies, results are clear

More than 400 students receive before- or after-school interventions, less than 1 percent of the district’s 23,500 students. Up to 200 students participate in the Saturday Growth Mindset Academy at any one time, Gonzales says. Students are also provided bus transportation and breakfast and lunch.

The program is paid for by state and federal funds, including about $42 million from California, $8.6 million in Title 1 funding, and $750,000 in Title III funding.

Data from standardized tests indicates that the extended learning program is working, Antuna says.

Since last year, nearly 45 percent of students increased by one level on the California English Language Development Test, which ranks learners among five proficiency levels ranging from beginning to advanced.

Jessica Ablamsky is a freelance writer in California.