Seattle Plans Overhaul of ELL Programs--With Stimulus Funds

By Mary Ann Zehr — May 14, 2009 2 min read
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Administrators in the Seattle public schools are apparently taking to heart findings in an audit last year that described the district’s approach to serving English-language learners as “ad hoc, incoherent, and directionless.”

Veronica Gallardo, who has been the manager of programs for ELLs in the 44,000-student district since July, says the district is planning a major revamping of those programs for next school year. And she said some of the expense is expected to be covered by Title I economic-stimulus funds, though the dollar amount allocated to the effort hasn’t been decided yet. I’ve been working on a story, soon to be published by Education Week, that tells how some large urban districts plan to use money from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act to improve schooling for ELLs.

The audit by the Council of the Great City Schools gave the district 75 recommendations on how to improve services for the school system’s 6,400 ELLs. “One of the biggest concerns was we weren’t consistent with our services across the district,” Gallardo told me in a telephone interview.

Interestingly, Seattle educators are adapting for their schools the approach used to teach ELLs in the St. Paul district, which is considered to have promising practices for these students by the Council of the Great City Schools. (See my 2006 story on St. Paul ELLs.)

At the elementary level, Seattle will replace English-as-a-second-language pull-out programs with a team-teaching approach. The ELL specialist and regular teacher provide instruction alongside each other. At the middle and high school levels, Seattle will use a “cluster” approach to teaching ELLs, which is also used in St. Paul. English-language learners will be clustered in classes according to their proficiency level. But that cluster will also be mixed in those classes with native-speakers of English. And an ELL teacher will be assigned to work in that classroom as well as the mainstream teacher. In addition, the ELLs will have a period each day of English-language-development instruction, separate from other students.

Gallardo said that while the Seattle district has provided training in ELL strategies for specialists, it hasn’t trained mainstream teachers in those strategies. So getting those mainstream teachers up to snuff is a big part of the overhaul as well. And for the first time, the school system will implement a districtwide curriculum for English-language development.

Seattle district-level staff for ELLs spent four days in St. Paul studying how that district educates English-language learners. The Columbia Heights district in Minnesota has also replicated St. Paul’s programs. The Council of the Great City Schools has selected the St. Paul district as one of four that have “best practices” for teaching ELLs for a study to be released next fall.

The St. Paul district has had success in dramatically narrowing the achievement gap between ELLs and native English speakers, but when I checked in with the district last fall, I found the gap had widened somewhat recently after the district changed some of its tests. The district receives a steady stream of refugee children, many of whom have had limited formal schooling before arriving in the United States.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Learning the Language blog.