A Changing Portland, A Changing District: Language Diversity in the Centennial School District (Part Two)

In my last post, I introduced the Centennial School District and the different approaches it has taken to meet the needs of its growing number of language learner, newcomer and refugee students. These students come from diverse countries such as Burma, the Republic of Congo and Somalia and that diversity is reflected in the 52 different languages spoken by Centennial’s 6,300 students.

Yet these challenges have not stopped Centennial from producing positive outcomes for their dual language learner (DLL) students. They were one of the eight school districts (out of 197) in the state to meet all three Annual Measureable Achievement Objectives (AMAOs) last school year. Which is to say that Centennial met the annual benchmarks set by the state for the number/percent of English Language Learner (ELL) students: 1) making progress towards English proficiency; 2) attaining English proficiency; and 3) meeting reading, math, and graduation targets.

Delivering on a Theory of Action

The district’s plan for improving outcomes for language learners centers around three core practices: curriculum mapping, Professional Learning Communities (PLCs), and instructional support.

The curricula used in Centennial’s schools are mapped and aligned to content standards (including the state’s new English Language Proficiency standards). From the perspective of Pam Bejerano, federal programs supervisor at Centennial, these maps ensure high standards and expectations for all students, “You can’t choose to lower your standards because you have too many ELLs in your classroom.”

Eight years ago Centennial began implementing PLCs to facilitate collaborative work among teachers, provide teachers with coaching support and ultimately, improve student achievement. “It’s not been an easy road,” shared Bejerano, “but it’s a big piece of how [we] better support ELLs in [the] classroom.”

Centennial’s professional learning communities meet weekly and consist of teachers (grouped by grade level), principals, and instructional coaches. Teachers come to PLCs armed with curriculum maps and student data. The majority of their time is spent “looking at individual students” and devising strategies for how “to help [each] student make growth,” said Bejerano. PLCs have helped refine teachers’ instructional practices, according to Bejerano, “[It] has really changed teaching...in the district because you’re talking about students every week...with your peers, and you don’t get to say well that student’s not making growth because they’re an ELL. What the conversation needs to be is how do I help that student make growth? And given that they’re an ELL, how do I do something differently for them?” The district’s three ELL coaches provide teachers with direct support during PLCs and share ways to integrate effective English Language Development (ELD) strategies into their classroom instruction.

According to researchers Vicki Vescio, Dorene Rosse, and Alyson Adams “to demonstrate results, PLCS must be able to articulate their outcomes in terms of data that indicate changed teaching practices and improved student learning…” To find evidence of the positive impact of PLCs on teacher collaboration and student results, you need look no further than Lynch Wood Elementary School.

Lessons from Lynch Wood

This year, Centennial launched a pilot in a handful of elementary schools aimed at aligning ELD instruction with classroom instruction. Lynch Wood Elementary school is one of the pilot sites and has begun aligning their first grade writing instruction across ELD and the classroom. Principal Andrea Sande explained the strategy: “[teachers] look at the ELP standards [and] the writing standards together, design an assessment, come back and analyze that [data] and start to look at strategies that they can use to support the instruction of the ELL students that is aligned then with the instruction that is happening in the classroom.” She also noted that writing was a logical place to start this collaborative work because it’s tangible and students generate a lot of output that can be quickly assessed.

Lynch Wood’s first graders were learning about opinion writing. Teachers and students recited a catchy refrain “Topic sentence. Reason. Reason. Reason. Closing sentence” to reinforce the structure underlying their writing. In one class, students were crafting opinion pieces on whether playing outside or reading books was a better activity.

One little girl was very excited to show off her work. It wasn’t long before it became clear that she was a newcomer - one of the (most) recent immigrants driving many of Centennial’s education policies.  Her first and last name were scrawled big letters across the top of the page and there were a slew of random letters written on the page. Every once in a while, she’d move in close to the girl working next to her and copy directly from her work. But it was clear she understood the basic premise of the question and task — evidenced by her saying “monkey bars” over and over. In other words, in her opinion, playing outside was better than reading a book because of the monkey bars.

Then she and about 20 other first-grade dual language learners (DLLs) were whisked off to their ELD class. And guess what? The two ELD teachers reinforced what was happening in the classroom via a lesson on opinions! The students were shown pictures of an orange and a strawberry and asked to describe their taste and other features. Then they turned and talked with a partner to discuss which one was better, in their opinion. Students had access to the same paragraph frame they used in class, and yes, they repeated that catchy refrain one more time.

But that wasn’t the only first grade ELD class happening at that time. Turns out Lynch Wood has an ELD class specifically for newcomers where they receive modified instruction in a smaller group. These students were also learning about opinions using a smaller paragraph frame and different ELD strategies. It’s difficult for these students to “turn and talk” when they don’t speak the same language, so they expressed their opinion by sticking a post-it under the activity they preferred (e.g. reading or drawing).

According to Principal Sande, this collaboration has translated into meaningful results for students, “[Teachers] really see students excelling in ways that they hadn’t before.” And Bejerano had the data to prove it — the school went from having 25 percent of first graders meeting grade-level expectations in writing on the fall writing assessment to 75 percent by the spring.

While it seems logical to align ELD instruction and classroom instruction, this work was nearly impossible with the state’s former ELP standards. To say these standards were inadequate is an understatement. Bejerano shared that “Literally our standards were ‘describe’ or ‘retell’ — that was the whole standard. [They] left us a little lacking in knowing more about what we were supposed to be teaching.” In the fall of 2013, the Oregon State Board of Education adopted new ELP standards developed by the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) and WestEd. These standards have been also mapped onto the language demands embedded within the state’s ELA, Math and Science standards:

Venn Diagram
Cheuk, T. (2013). Relationships and convergences among the mathematics, science, and ELA practices. Refined version of diagram created by the Understanding Language Initiative for ELP Standards. Stanford. CA: Stanford University (Cheuk, T. (2013). Relationships and convergences among the mathematics, science, and ELA practices. Refined version of diagram created by the Understanding Language Initiative for ELP Standards. Stanford. CA: Stanford University)

In short, as controversial and fraught as it can be to update standards, they matter. Newer, better standards can support the work of educators and the success of students.

What’s Next

To be sure, Centennial School District is implementing promising practices for their more than 1,100 language learners. But they’re not nearly done when it comes to refining and improving their ELD program. Bejerano shared that the school district will spend the next year planning for a new K-6 ELD program model (to be implemented in SY 2016-17) called SSEGway (Science, Social Studies, ELPS and GLAD). SSEGway will be a language-embedded science and social studies model that integrates GLAD (Guided Language Acquisition Design) strategies within the instructional units used in these content areas. Classroom and ELD teachers will collaborate to provide SSEGway instruction to students during a designated block of time. The plan is for SSEGway to replace the current ELD pull-out model used in the district’s schools. That means that the district’s dual language learners will simultaneously be learning academic English and content.


This post is part of New America’s Dual Language Learners National Work Group. Click here for more information on this team's work. To subscribe to the biweekly newsletter, click here, enter your contact information, and select "Education Policy."



Amaya Garcia is deputy director for English learner education in the Education Policy program at New America where she provides research and analysis on policies and programs related to bilingual teacher preparation and career pathways, bilingual education, English language proficiency and early education.