Language barriers

The not-so-secret ELL summer slide problem that no one has quantified

PHOTO: Charlie Nye / The Star

Joey Casas doesn’t like speaking English.

“It’s too hard,” Joey mumbled in Spanish. “I don’t like when teachers make me speak it.”

The 8-year-old is one of more than 14,000 Aurora Public Schools students who is classified as an English language learner. He speaks primarily Spanish at home, which is where he spends a majority of his summertime.

Occasionally, Joey goes to the park or plays with friends, but they also speak Spanish, which means the student usually doesn’t utter a word of English between the end of school and the beginning of the next academic year.

Some educators and parents believe English learners have a deeper learning loss during the summer than their native-English speaking peers, partially due to less practice when they’re on break.

But there’s no national, statewide, or district data that proves this, which can raise several problems for students and schools.

Without knowing the depth of the problem, the nearly 127,000 students learning English as a second language in Colorado could be falling further behind in reading and writing without anyone noticing. And the issue is a tricky one, with factors both in and outside of school impacting students’ language skills.

In addition, these same students may not be aware they’re losing ground and their parents might be unaware of existing programs that can help curb the loss, or even turn it into academic gains with some assistance.

The research
There are case studies where English skills for groups of students are measured before and after summer break, but there’s no large database that measures the problem, said Kathy Escamilla, who is the project director for the Bilinguals United for Education and New Opportunities Center.

Part of the reason the data is limited is because there are some factors that are hard to account for.

For example, some English language learners leave the U.S. during the summer while others don’t, which can affect how much English exposure they get. So measuring their language abilities before and after summer break wouldn’t be accurate unless their exposure to English was also measured, which would be difficult to do.

“It’s very dependent on context, where the kid spends the summer,” Escamilla said. “What affects [summer slide] is your opportunity to continue practicing language.”

And not every student has that opportunity to practice during the summer, especially in homes where the primary language that is spoken is not English.

According to a 2012 study from an assistant professor at the University of California Irvine, students from non-English speaking homes experienced a deeper summer setback in English vocabulary than students from English speaking homes. And an article from 2012 highlighted the back-to-school struggle for Spanish-speaking English learners in Arizona who spent all summer without much exposure to English.

But a majority of the evidence that shows non-English speaking students suffer from summer learning loss more than their English-speaking peers is largely based on studies with small sample sizes or anecdotes.

The slide
So how do educators know this problem exists without consistent and broad data?

The issue starts with summer slide in general. It is well documented that students suffer learning losses during the summer. There are dozens of studies that show students score lower at the end of summer on the same math and English tests they take at the beginning of break.

The earliest studies go back more than 100 years, showing that summer slide has been a noticeable phenomenon for more than a century. A more recent study from the 1990s shows that at best students made no learning gains over the summer. But in the worst cases students lost about a month’s worth of reading, language and math skills.

The loss is even more striking for low-income students, who lose more than two months of reading skills, according to other studies.

One way families combat summer slide is by enrolling their kids in summer learning programs. But because English language learners also tend to hail from low-income homes, there can be difficulty accessing programs that cost money.

“I wish there were more [summer programs] that didn’t cost money,” Escamilla said. “A lot of our English language learner families also tend to be poor.”

But as much data as there is on summer learning losses for all students, how it specifically affects students learning English as a second language is not studied with as much fervor.

The problem
Even with a lack of data, educators and parents of students who are learning English know the problem is more pronounced for these kids.

One of these parents is Flor Vasquez, who came to the U.S. 12 years ago from Puebla, Mexico. She has three children who attend Swansea Elementary in northeast Denver and all of them are in the English Language Acquisition program, which tries to help non-English speaking students transition to full-time English instruction.

During the summer, her children don’t practice their English skills at home as much as she would like, Vasquez said. One of the challenges the family faces is that she is also learning English. Her first language, and the one she is most comfortable speaking in, is Spanish.

“[My kids] are pretty good at speaking [English], but not good at writing,” Vasquez said. “They don’t read or write as much during the summer. We’re all kind of learning English together. But it’s harder for them to learn when school is out.”

Vasquez and her three children all attended a summer learning program at Swansea held by Scholars Unlimited, a nonprofit organization that tries to improve literacy among high-risk students by offering afterschool and summer programming that incorporates reading and writing. This summer, about 700 Denver Public Schools students in 12 schools participated in the Scholars Unlimited summer program.

In addition, parents of these students could also participate in the program if they wanted to learn English.

Maria Valle, the site coordinator for Scholars Unlimited at Swansea, said students who don’t speak English often have parents who also don’t speak the language — which can be an especially difficult hurdle to overcome during the summer, she said.

“I’m more than sure [students who are English language learners] are more affected by [summer slide],” Valle said. “In talking to the parents, we have to let them know that everything they learned during the school year is going to be lost during the summer if they don’t continue to read and write [in English]… but parents aren’t able to help them, they don’t speak English and they don’t know how to help their kids.”

Even students themselves notice the problem.

Rainah Trujillo and Margarita Fonseca are both 9-years-old and attend schools in Denver. They both speak English and Spanish at home.

“I didn’t used to like writing but now I do,” said Rainah, who speaks mostly in English with her parents but mostly in Spanish with her grandparents.

Rainah admitted that if she hadn’t attended the Scholars Unlimited summer program, she would most likely not be reading or writing during the summer. Margarita echoed the same sentiment.

Joey, the ELL student from Aurora, stands in stark contrast to these girls. Since he doesn’t participate in any programs during the summer he doesn’t read, write or speak English for nearly three months.

A possible solution
These kids exemplify one of the main contributors to summer slide: availability of programs. While they participated in a summer program that keeps them writing and reading in between school years, that’s not the case for most students.

“There are limited opportunities for kids to engage in the kind of things that enrich your vocabulary and continue to propel your language learning,” Escamilla said.

Summer programs don’t even have to be specifically geared toward learning English or take place in a school setting to be beneficial, Escamilla said. For students learning English, simply engaging and practicing the language by talking and playing with other students can help stave off summer slide, she said.

“You can learn [English] by playing board games, you can learn English by being in little league and being on a team where everyone speaks English and you have to understand all the rules and you have to interact with kids,” Escamilla said. “There are all sorts of context and ways to learn English.”

But these programs come at a cost — literally. According to data from Afterschool Alliance, an organization that raises awareness of how important after school programs are, the average cost of summer programs in 2013 was $250 per child. If this applied to Vasquez and her three kids, they would have had to pay $1000 to keep learning English during the summer.

In addition, summer slide doesn’t just affect students during the summer, but the following school year as well, when these learning losses spill over.

In a survey from the National Summer Learning Association, 330 teachers out of a sample of 500 said it takes them three to four weeks to re-teach their students material from the previous year and 120 said it takes them even longer.

This can have a discouraging effect on students learning English, said Valle, the bilingual site coordinator.

“They have to start all over [the beginning of each academic year] and they get frustrated because they are coming again and again and making the progress but losing it,” she said. “They think ‘Why do I have to do it again?’”

But with some help from outside programs, these students might not have to “do it again.”

In addition to the summer program offered by Scholars Unlimited in Denver, Emerald Elementary in Broomfield works with the YMCA to host the free Cultural Awareness Through Creative Horizons (CATCH) camp.

While not specifically geared toward English language learners, the camp is free and targeted toward at-risk students in a historically white and middle-class community, such as those who are economically disadvantaged or behind in reading and writing.

More than half of the students at Emerald receive free or reduced lunch. In addition, about 45 percent of the students are Hispanic and almost a quarter are English language learners.

“It’s a really nurturing environment for kids to come into CATCH camp,” she said. “If they can have that summertime where they have fun, low pressure opportunities to practice English that’s not the high stakes experience of raising their hand in the classroom when you’re not sure if you have the answer right, I think it helps build this more trusting community for the kids.”

The feedback and data from these programs reflects the potential benefits.

According to teacher surveys at Emerald, students who participated in outside academic programs, including CATCH camp, saw an improvement in homework completion, participation and behavior.

In addition, commentary from parents on surveys indicated that they saw improvements in their children’s reading and homework.

And the Scholars Unlimited summer program reflects the same pattern seen at CATCH camp.

Students are given a reading comprehension assessment before and after the program to measure their English skills. Data from 2014 showed students made significant gains in literacy skills. A majority of the students were at or above grade level in reading, writing and speaking English by the end of the program.

If the data holds true for this summer, students won’t only avoid summer slide, but actually make gains in their language skills.

“We have many students who are new to the U.S. At one point we had 21 languages spoken in this school,” Reuss said. “Children and their families love these programs. These students are exposed to opportunities they wouldn’t have had otherwise. They love coming to summer school…it’s just a shame it’s not offered everywhere.”

getting in

Detroit district moves beyond test scores for admittance to elite high schools like Cass Tech and Renaissance

The Detroit school district is changing its application process for students hoping for a spot at selective high schools like Cass Technical High School.

Detroit’s main school district is changing the way it decides which students gain entry to the city’s elite high schools.

Students applying to Cass Technical High School, Renaissance High School and two other selective high schools will no longer be judged primarily on the results of a single exam.

Instead, an admissions team comprised of teachers and staff from the schools, as well as administrators in the district’s central office, will use a score card that gives students points in various categories.

Students can get up to 40 points for their score on the district’s high school placement exam, up to 30 points for their grades and transcripts, up to 20 points for an essay and up to 10 points for a letter of recommendation. Students already enrolled in the district will also get 10 bonus points that will give them an edge over students applying from charter and suburban schools.

That is a change over past years when  students with the highest test scores largely got automatic admissions to their top-choice schools. Other factors like grades, essays, student interviews, and letters of recommendations were typically only considered during an appeals process for students who didn’t make the first-round cut.

“You can imagine that there was a great deal of subjectivity to that, and if you’re a student who might not be a good test taker, you were at a disadvantage,” said Superintendent Nikolai Vitti, who, as a dyslexic, said he was not a strong test-taker in school.

“I can empathize with that gifted student whose intelligence is not always identified by a standardized test,” he said.

Vitti said he hopes the new process “will have more of a quality control … It’s a consistent process to ensure that we’re being equitable and fair when students are being enrolled in these schools.”

The district’s decision to reduce the role of testing in admission decisions mirrors a trend across the country where college admissions offices are increasingly moving beyond SAT and ACT scores to give more weight to grades and other factors in admissions decisions.

Cities like New York and Boston are reviewing their use of test-based admissions for their elite high schools in the face of an onslaught of criticism that the tests discriminate against students of color and students who come from poor families and reinforce already prevalent segregation in the districts.

“Tests tend to favor kids who come from backgrounds and whose families have the wherewithal to focus on test prep,” said Bob Schaeffer, the public education director at FairTest, an organization critical of schools’ reliance on test scores to make crucial decisions.

In addition to changing the admission criteria for Detroit’s selective high schools, the district is also for the first time requiring all district 8th-graders to take the exam. In the past, only students who applied to the top schools took those tests.

“Not every school emphasized the exam application process, so it would be dependent on an individual parent’s ability to navigate the system,” Vitti said.

Only about half of the district’s 8th graders took the exam last year. Data provided by the district show that several schools had just a handful of students take the test while others had dozens of test-takers. (See the full list of test-takers from district schools here.)

Vitti hopes that requiring 8th graders to take the test and encouraging more of them to write essays and gather letters of recommendation to apply will help prepare them to apply to college four years later.

“We’re creating a culture of college readiness,” he said.

The district is also using the exam to survey students about their career ambitions and plans to make high school programming decisions based on their answers, Vitti said, adding that high schools will also use the exam results to determine which students could benefit from advanced classes and which ones need more help.

Some parents and educators say they welcome efforts to make the application process more equitable.

Hope Gibson, the dean of students at Bethune Elementary-Middle School on the city’s west side, said students were excited when the school encouraged them to apply to the selective schools.

“They feel like we believe in them,” she said.

The changes, however, have put some families on edge as they worry about how the new approach will affect students’ chances at landing a spot in their first-choice school.

Aliya Moore, a parent leader at Paul Robeson Malcolm X Academy, a K-8 school that typically sends roughly half of its graduates to Cass and Renaissance, said parents had trouble getting information about the process and have been frustrated with Vitti and the school officials he brought to Detroit with him from his last job running schools in Jacksonville, Florida.

“I don’t like these new people coming here and criticizing our old ways,” said Moore, who graduated from Cass Tech in 1998 and has a daughter enrolled there now. “The district is now full of changes. Some are good, but some are like, if something is not broken, why are you trying to fix it? We support Dr. Vitti. We have nothing negative to say. But when you come in and you just totally dismantle what was, even if it was working, we don’t understand that.”

Among Moore’s concerns is the district’s use of  a new test this year, which makes it more difficult for the school to help students prepare. Also, this year’s test is being administered online while prior tests were on paper.

Vitti said the district is using a new test this year because last year’s exam wasn’t an option.

“The license expired years ago and the district was illegally using it,” he said.

The new test will be online, he said, though students with disabilities and other students whose parents request it will be allowed to take the test on paper.

The Detroit district now has four examination schools including Cass, Renaissance and Martin Luther King Jr. High School. The district this year converted Southeastern High School into an exam school after Southeastern returned to the district from five years in the Education Achievement Authority, a now-dissolved state-run recovery district.

How I Teach

From bikes to blue hair: how one Denver kindergarten teacher shares his passion with students

Andres Pazo, a kindergarten teacher at Denver's Maxwell Elementary, with his class.

How do teachers captivate their students? Here, in a feature we call How I Teach, we ask educators who’ve been recognized for their work how they approach their jobs. You can see other pieces in this series here.

Andres Pazo, a kindergarten teacher in an ESL Spanish class at Denver’s Maxwell Elementary School, doesn’t do things halfway. Before Denver Broncos home games, he’ll come to school with his face and hair painted orange and navy. For holidays or school book fairs, he wears full themed costumes. A passionate cyclist, he dresses in professional cycling gear to teach bike safety to children.

Pazo, who colleagues say has a smile for everyone he meets, received one of Denver Public Schools’ four Leadership Lamp awards last summer.

He talked with Chalkbeat about the teachers who inspired him to enter the field, why he uses secret codes to get his students’ attention, and how he gets to know students before school starts.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Why did you become a teacher?
I’m from Caracas, Venezuela, and decided to become a teacher during my last year in my country. For all the universities that I applied to, I put elementary education as my first choice, and I got accepted.

During high school, I had some teachers that impacted my life — I think because they taught with their hearts and reached mine. Hector Zamora was my geography teacher in college. He didn’t care about scores. He just wanted us to know, love, and feel geography. Also, I can add Evelia Mujica, my eighth grade biology teacher. She was super-strict and funny, but in the end, I think she just wanted us to love and really know about biology. These two still inspire me every single day to be a good teacher.

What does your classroom look like?
My classroom is a room where my students feel safe and loved, and where they try hard all year long. It’s also messy, and you can see many masks and hats that I use to engage my students in lessons, and, of course, their projects throughout the year.

Fill in the blank. I couldn’t teach without my _____. Why?
Motivation. It is what keeps me thinking of activities, projects, lessons, and ideas so my students enjoy anything that they need to learn.

What is one of your favorite lessons to teach? How did you come up with the idea?
My favorite lesson to teach is a writing unit at the end of the year, called “All About.” I always bring in things that I love — like my bikes — and write about them. I let students write about any small moment: about something that they love, the food their parents make, a family trip, a family visiting them, a good or sad day … anything they would like to share. They usually bring in their favorite toys.

The students’ writing is amazing because they apply everything they’ve been learning. They try so hard to write everything about their toys. You can hear them sharing their stories with others, and their pictures are incredible. Writing is a good indicator of how much they have grown during the school year.

How do you respond when a student doesn’t understand your lesson?
I sit with him or her after the lesson is taught and work on the skill that needs to be mastered.

How do you get your class’s attention if students are talking or off task?
I use a lot of “secret codes” with my students. For example, when I say “mustache code,” they put a finger across their upper lips. They can be working, reading, or playing, and when I say it, I have 100 percent of students’ attention right away.

How do you get to know your students and build relationships with them? What questions do you ask or what actions do you take?
It starts before the first day of class. I usually write letters to them or do home visits. I take the first two weeks of school to get to know them and what they like to do. I take time to welcome them so they can feel safe and confident in the classroom.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.
When I was working at Denver Center for International Studies at Ford, we started a home visiting program. We first thought parents didn’t have time for us or that they didn’t want to take the time. But, once we started making the calls and found that parents wanted us to come, we understood that parents didn’t know about the program. After that, some parents became more involved in their kids’ education and with the school.

What are you reading for enjoyment?
A lot of mountain bike reviews about bicycles, parts, or trails to ride.

What’s the best advice you ever received?
Never change my personality.