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Instructional Model May Yield Gains for English-Learners

By Mary Ann Zehr — December 04, 2007 5 min read
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Educators at a small public school for immigrant students at the foot of the Manhattan Bridge here believe its unusual instructional approach—which includes mixing students at various levels of English proficiency—is a key reason why Brooklyn International High School has a graduation rate that outpaces that of many other public schools in New York City.

That model, being used by eight other small high schools for immigrants in this city and one in Oakland, Calif., is supported by a New York City-based nonprofit organization, Internationals Network for Public Schools, which has plans to transplant it to other cities.

The nonprofit was started in 2004 with a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to build on the success of four international high schools that already had been started in the city by helping to expand the number of such schools. Brooklyn International opened its doors in 1994.

The New York educators’ enthusiasm is understandable, if the completion rate at Brooklyn International is any measure: Eighty percent of its students graduate after four years, while, on average, 60 percent of New York City’s students do the same.

Particularly impressive is the school’s success with English-language learners. The four-year high school graduation rate in 2007 for students who were still ELLs at graduation was 65 percent; in 2006, the most recent year for which data are available, the city’s average four-year graduation rate for ELLs was 26 percent.

While some may question whether English-learners could be shortchanged by attending a school with only other immigrants, Pamela Taranto, the principal of the 392-student school, said that anyone with that view can “look at our results.”

Note of Caution

Experts on ELLs sound a note of caution, however. They say that teaching ELLs in groups with mixed levels of English fluency can be effective, but that schools must have a strong professional-development program to prepare teachers to deliver differentiated instruction.

“It’s extremely difficult to pull off,” said Claude Goldenberg, an education professor at Stanford University who is conducting a study for the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences on differentiated instruction for ELLs.

For example, he said, teachers would have to learn how to give different assignments to different students, vary what questions they ask different students, put students in flexible groups that change throughout the day and school year, and adopt other strategies to teach students of different English-proficiency levels effectively in the same classrooms.

“It’s difficult to sustain that,” said Mr. Goldenberg.

On the other hand, he said, when ELLs are grouped with students who have similar English skills, the students at the beginning and intermediate levels can get a watered-down curriculum. “Teachers tend to oversimplify because they don’t want to frustrate them,” he said.

Professional-development is a key part of Brooklyn International’s model, according to Ms. Taranto, who said it takes teachers in her school about three years to become adept at carrying out the school’s instructional model.

Teachers are assigned in teams of five to work with the same cohort of students, and they often coordinate with one another to facilitate interdisciplinary learning projects. Ninth and 10th graders take all classes together, and for those grades the same teachers stick with the same group of students and team of teachers for two years.

Not ‘Scared’ to Speak

Students at Brooklyn International highlight a different aspect of the school that they say helps them to acquire English fluency and academic content: the fact that it admits only immigrants. Everyone is an English-learner at the time of enrollment.

“I don’t feel scared to speak English here,” said Richard Abreu, a 16-year-old 10th grader from the Dominican Republic, who said he had felt ignored by many other students at the two other New York City schools he attended. “People thought, ‘I can’t talk to him. He doesn’t speak English,’ ” he recalled.

BLOG: Learning the Language

Stephany Li, a senior, said that when she arrived from China more than five years ago, she was placed in a bilingual program with other Chinese students and didn’t mix with other students. “I didn’t speak any English at all when I was in junior high,” said Ms. Li, who now speaks English with ease.

Brooklyn International students also say they get practice speaking with native speakers of English during required internships in the community during junior year.

With students from 44 countries, the school isn’t lacking racial and ethnic diversity, Ms. Taranto noted. “For a lot of our students, they are coming from countries where everyone is like them,” she said. “They are very interested in the diversity here.”

Classroom Interaction

On a recent fall day, the school’s focus on interactive lessons and differentiated instruction was evident in three different classes on core subjects visited by a reporter: a science class for 9th and 10th graders and a social studies class and an English class for seniors.

Dina Begum, a 10th grader from Bangladesh, was a natural leader in her group of four students who were conducting a science experiment comparing the surface tension of tap water and soapy tap water.

“We need a beaker, right?” she said to start the group out.

“What’s the title, baby?” she asked when they started making a graph of their data. “Now, let’s get to work,” she said, when they’d finished the graph and were supposed to write an analysis.

Diego Zapata, 17, center, and Naciely Cabral, 14, right, work together during a science class, where most of the communication takes place in English.

As the only 10th grader in the group and the student with the highest proficiency in English, she was assigned to write two paragraphs analyzing the experiment while the student with the lowest English proficiency was assigned to write two sentences.

In the English class with seniors, students in a group with Koey Chen, a 16-year-old from China, urged her to participate, even though she was reluctant to speak.

The students retold a short story they had read for homework by taking turns saying a couple of sentences about it in a circle—called a “round robin” exercise. Ms. Chen was silent when it was her turn to talk—and a boy started to jump in for her.

“Don’t say it for her—ask her a question,” said Marco Ma, another student from China, whom the teacher had selected to lead the group.

“I only read up to here,” admitted Ms. Chen, pointing to a copy of the short story.

But rather than let her off the hook, Nathaly Cabral, 17, a student from the Dominican Republic, tried to draw her out. “Where did you read up to? What happened there? What was [the character’s] reaction to that?” Ms. Cabral asked.

The students relented only when Ms. Chen said the words her teacher had told her permit her to skip her turn: “I pass.”

Coverage of new schooling arrangements and classroom improvement efforts is supported by a grant from the Annenberg Foundation.
A version of this article appeared in the December 05, 2007 edition of Education Week as Instructional Model May Yield Gains for English-Learners

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