Steamboat Springs schools’ ELL programs thrive | SteamboatToday.com

Steamboat Springs schools’ ELL programs thrive

Teresa Ristow

English Language Learner specialist Ann Coon works with a student during an after-school homework club at Soda Creek Elementary in 2013. The district's methods for working with ELL students were recently recognized by the state.

— The Steamboat Springs School District was recently recognized as being top in the state for its work improving the skills of English language learners and bringing them though the ELL program quickly.

Although the district wasn't told exactly which metrics were used to give it the top English Language Proficiency Act Excellence Award, district officials think it's the staff's philosophy of shared responsibility for students and a commitment to community integration that is bringing success.

"We feel we all have a mutual responsibility to work on the education of those students," said Marty Lamansky, district director of teaching and learning. "They're all our students. Everybody has to learn the techniques and teaching tools that are going to be effective with all of our populations."

Steamboat Springs High School ELL teacher Dani Booth said it's clear that other subject teachers are making the extra effort to learn how to better support ELL students, rather than relying on her to bridge the gap between ELL students and their success.

"It takes quite a bit of extra effort from them," Booth said. "It's such a huge part, and it makes a world of difference for them to really relate to students."

Specialists like Booth are on staff at each regular district school to work with students and teachers to best support ELL students.

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District statistics show that the number of ELL students, including those who have no English language skills whatsoever, has increased steadily during the past 10 years.

The district counted 181 ELL students during the 2013-14 school year, up from 38 during the 2003-04 school year.

An influx of students from Mexico without any language skills last year was a trying experience for Booth.

The students only knew how to say a few words and were unclear about how some aspects of high school worked.

"It was a real eye-opener," said Booth, who saw the students during study hall and other classes like Spanish for Spanish Speakers and Strategic Language Arts.

"It was an experience for the high school — we had to be pretty creative to adjust," she said.

As more students enter the district, Booth continues to work with last year's group as they improve their language through six testable levels of skills identified by the state.

Students progress until they reach Level 5 or 6, when staff consider whether they should move out of the ELL program.

"Some of the students went up to a Level 3 by January of last year, which was pretty remarkable," Booth said. "Most of them are at a Level 2 right now. It's exciting to see them grow."

The district has a few community partnerships to not only encourage the success of its ELL students, but include their families in the process.

"We are doing a better job of community outreach and working jointly with groups such as Communidad (Integrated Community) and creating some of our own events," Lamansky said.

The MotheRead program at Soda Creek Elementary School this year also has brought ELL parents into the school to help work on reading along with their children.

While the programs are helping students, Soda Creek ELL specialist Ann Coon said the district has plenty of room to improve.

She said a model where students are rarely, if ever, pulled out of elementary classes for instruction would be more beneficial than separating ELL students from the general population.

"When you pull kids out of the classroom, they're going to miss something," Coon said. "We're really looking for more effective instructional models."

Coon said she's pushing for the district to implement a co-teaching model that brings ELL teachers into the classroom to instruct alongside other teachers.

The most successful ELL programs across the nation are two-way bilingual programs where students spend half their instructional time learning in English and the other in another language, usually Spanish.

Coon said it's impressive that Steamboat is doing so well with ELL students, considering that nationwide, achievement gaps between ELL students and the rest of students are growing.

"We've been extremely lucky to have the level of success we've had," Coon said. "But we've still got some work to do."

To reach Teresa Ristow, call 970-871-4206, email tristow@SteamboatToday.com or follow her on Twitter @TeresaRistow