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.”

Belittled as a child, this Memphis teacher sets a high bar for her students

PHOTO: Ginny Terrell
Ginny Terrell poses with her Aspire Hanley third-graders. Terrell has been teaching for four years and will move to Aspire East in the fall.

Some 20 years ago, Ginny Terrell’s third grade math teacher called her “stupid.” Now, Terrell laughs as she names her current position: a third grade math teacher.

“I was that kid in school that everybody was like, ‘What’s wrong with her?’” said Terrell who has been teaching at the local charter Aspire Hanley for four years and will teach at Aspire East in the fall.

Terrell was held back in kindergarten and struggled from there on. Luckily, she had teachers that stayed with her after hours to give her the support that she didn’t have at home. At that moment, she knew she wanted to be like them.

PHOTO: Ginny Terrell
Ginny Terrell and her Aspire Hanley students.

As middle and high school loomed, Terrell told herself she had two options: sink or swim. So she worked hard — often twice as hard as her classmates, she said — and eventually enrolled in the University of North Texas in her home state.

During college, which took her seven years to complete, Terrell spent time in New Orleans doing service projects, where she often interacted with local youth. Then, she interned at a Title I school, where she noticed that her fellow teachers were unprepared to handle disciplinary issues, and that the “kids weren’t getting what they needed.” (Title I schools, eligible for certain federal funding grants, enroll a high percentage of students from low-income families.)

“I felt like it was the blind leading the blind,” she said.

That work, Terrell said, prepared her for a career in urban education. After graduation, she signed up for Memphis Teacher Residency, an alternative teacher licensing program that places college graduates at urban schools.

“They endure more than I could ever dream of,” she said of her students, 88 percent of whom qualify for free or reduced-priced lunch. “… I can relate a lot to their home lives, their struggling in school and their not wanting to even be there.”

In this installment of How I Teach, Chalkbeat spoke with Terrell about why her decision to teach in urban schools was such a personal one. (This Q&A has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.)

How do you get to know your students?

I get to know my students by really utilizing my first month of school. I really try to use every moment and every conversation to truly understand each of my students. I give them a little survey that is like a Facebook page on paper the second day they are at school. I send home a survey [for parents to fill out] about his or her child and that helps me know even more. I spend time talking with them at lunch, recess, and moments during instruction. I try to observe how they respond to my questions, how they respond to hard situations, how they respond to their peers and how they handle learning. I use morning meeting time to know each of my students by playing getting-to-know-you games and simply letting them do a show and tell.

Tell us about a favorite lesson to teach. Where did the idea come from?

For a lesson on perimeter and area, our class took a little trip to the playground.They counted blocks and other items around the playground and added them up to get the perimeter. My students tried teaching each other and asked questions during the lesson on the playground. They told me at the end of the year that was their favorite lesson because they could understand it. This idea came from reading a book “Becoming the Math Teacher You Wished You’d Had: Ideas and Strategies from Vibrant Classrooms,” by Tracy Johnston Zager. In the book it discusses the importance of including real life examples students can relate to in math and gave multiple examples in other classrooms. I thought that we should use the playground, which will stick with them because they use it every day and they love it!

What object would you be helpless without during the school day?

An object I would be helpless without during the school day would be our clip system [moved up and down to track student behavior]! They could see where they were at behaviorally and how they can improve at every moment of the day. I could not live without a behavior system in my classroom. It is the basis of giving students structure and consistency. If you do not have a behavior system that is a well-oiled machine, you will not be able to get to your instruction and plan the engaging lessons. The culture you set, from day one, will drive your classroom.

What’s something happening in the community that affects what goes on inside your class?

Something that is happening in the community that affects my classroom is the crime rate. I have heard students coming in telling me they could not sleep because of the gunshots or abuse in their homes. Some of the crime happened on our [school] property between parents. This [hurts] student’s ability to focus, and [discourages] parents from coming to the school or even being involved. Students will start following what they see in their community, [so it] is hard for them to learn how to treat their peers or even teachers in a different way.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.

One of my students had a hard time functioning in my classroom. She could not really get along with peers and was sad a lot of the time. I reached out to the mom and discussed what was going on with her. Mom shared with me her life story and what has been going on at home. She wasn’t at all playing a victim or making excuses for her child. She instead asked me for help and support. We prayed for each other and I built a beautiful relationship with that family. It is so easy in the heat of the moment to snap or get angry with a student if he or she is not following directions. It showed me to seek to understand first, then take action. I could have done a lot more damage to the student in the classroom if I did not seek to understand. From that point on, I always make sure I take a step back and understand the situation instead of snap judgements. It taught how I can love each student in the way that will benefit them as future contributors to our society.

What part of your job is most difficult?

The most difficult part of my job would be not having enough parent involvement. There will be some parents that were very involved and supported the best they can in and outside the classroom. However, it has been difficult for some parents due to working three different jobs, not having enough resources or just not having the mental capacity to support. I cherish their thoughts and their support, so not having that [makes it] difficult to hold my students accountable outside the classroom.

What was your biggest misconception that you initially brought to teaching?

I thought I had to dumb down my lessons so other students can learn. It is actually the opposite; having high expectations, students can reach the bar you set. I think I viewed my students as “low” academically, but they are not. Maybe they’re behind, but never low. They are so smart and can do anything you ask. It might take some time and you have to go back, but they are able and more than ready.

What are you reading for enjoyment?

“Nothing to Prove” by Jennie Allen and “Hope Heals” by Katherine Wolf and Jay Wolf

What’s the best advice you’ve received about teaching?

If you think you have arrived in teaching, you need to retire.

First Person

I’m a principal who thinks personalized learning shouldn’t be a debate.

PHOTO: Lisa Epstein
Lisa Epstein, principal of Richard H. Lee Elementary, supports personalized learning

This is the first in what we hope will be a tradition of thoughtful opinion pieces—of all viewpoints—published by Chalkbeat Chicago. Have an idea? Send it to cburke@chalkbeat.org

As personalized learning takes hold throughout the city, Chicago teachers are wondering why a term so appealing has drawn so much criticism.

Until a few years ago, the school that I lead, Richard H. Lee Elementary on the Southwest Side, was on a path toward failing far too many of our students. We crafted curriculum and identified interventions to address gaps in achievement and the shifting sands of accountability. Our teachers were hardworking and committed. But our work seemed woefully disconnected from the demands we knew our students would face once they made the leap to postsecondary education.

We worried that our students were ill-equipped for today’s world of work and tomorrow’s jobs. Yet, we taught using the same model through which we’d been taught: textbook-based direct instruction.

How could we expect our learners to apply new knowledge to evolving facts, without creating opportunities for exploration? Where would they learn to chart their own paths, if we didn’t allow for agency at school? Why should our students engage with content that was disconnected from their experiences, values, and community?

We’ve read articles about a debate over personalized learning centered on Silicon Valley’s “takeover” of our schools. We hear that Trojan Horse technologies are coming for our jobs. But in our school, personalized learning has meant developing lessons informed by the cultural heritage and interests of our students. It has meant providing opportunities to pursue independent projects, and differentiating curriculum, instruction, and assessment to enable our students to progress at their own pace. It has reflected a paradigm shift that is bottom-up and teacher led.

And in a move that might have once seemed incomprehensible, it has meant getting rid of textbooks altogether. We’re not alone.

We are among hundreds of Chicago educators who would welcome critics to visit one of the 120 city schools implementing new models for learning – with and without technology. Because, as it turns out, Chicago is fast becoming a hub for personalized learning. And, it is no coincidence that our academic growth rates are also among the highest in the nation.

Before personalized learning, we designed our classrooms around the educator. Decisions were made based on how educators preferred to teach, where they wanted students to sit, and what subjects they wanted to cover.

Personalized learning looks different in every classroom, but the common thread is that we now make decisions looking at the student. We ask them how they learn best and what subjects strike their passions. We use small group instruction and individual coaching sessions to provide each student with lesson plans tailored to their needs and strengths. We’re reimagining how we use physical space, and the layout of our classrooms. We worry less about students talking with their friends; instead, we ask whether collaboration and socialization will help them learn.

Our emphasis on growth shows in the way students approach each school day. I have, for example, developed a mentorship relationship with one of our middle school students who, despite being diligent and bright, always ended the year with average grades. Last year, when she entered our personalized learning program for eighth grade, I saw her outlook change. She was determined to finish the year with all As.

More than that, she was determined to show that she could master anything her teachers put in front of her. She started coming to me with graded assignments. We’d talk about where she could improve and what skills she should focus on. She was pragmatic about challenges and so proud of her successes. At the end of the year she finished with straight As—and she still wanted more. She wanted to get A-pluses next year. Her outlook had changed from one of complacence to one oriented towards growth.

Rather than undermining the potential of great teachers, personalized learning is creating opportunities for collaboration as teachers band together to leverage team-teaching and capitalize on their strengths and passions. For some classrooms, this means offering units and lessons based on the interests and backgrounds of the class. For a couple of classrooms, it meant literally knocking down walls to combine classes from multiple grade-levels into a single room that offers each student maximum choice over how they learn. For every classroom, it means allowing students to work at their own pace, because teaching to the middle will always fail to push some while leaving others behind.

For many teachers, this change sounded daunting at first. For years, I watched one of my teachers – a woman who thrives off of structure and runs a tight ship – become less and less engaged in her profession. By the time we made the switch to personalized learning, I thought she might be done. We were both worried about whether she would be able to adjust to the flexibility of the new model. But she devised a way to maintain order in her classroom while still providing autonomy. She’s found that trusting students with the responsibility to be engaged and efficient is both more effective and far more rewarding than trying to force them into their roles. She now says that she would never go back to the traditional classroom structure, and has rediscovered her love for teaching. The difference is night and day.

The biggest change, though, is in the relationships between students and teachers. Gone is the traditional, authority-to-subordinate dynamic; instead, students see their teachers as mentors with whom they have a unique and individual connection, separate from the rest of the class. Students are actively involved in designing their learning plans, and are constantly challenged to articulate the skills they want to build and the steps that they must take to get there. They look up to their teachers, they respect their teachers, and, perhaps most important, they know their teachers respect them.

Along the way, we’ve found that students respond favorably when adults treat them as individuals. When teachers make important decisions for them, they see learning as a passive exercise. But, when you make it clear that their needs and opinions will shape each school day, they become invested in the outcome.

As our students take ownership over their learning, they earn autonomy, which means they know their teachers trust them. They see growth as the goal, so they no longer finish assignments just to be done; they finish assignments to get better. And it shows in their attendance rates – and test scores.

Lisa Epstein is the principal of Richard H. Lee Elementary School, a public school in Chicago’s West Lawn neighborhood serving 860 students from pre-kindergarten through eighth grade.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect that Richard H. Lee Elementary School serves 860 students, not 760 students.