All but two Teton County public schools are meeting or exceeding state accountability expectations, the Wyoming Department of Education found in the annual school performance report released last month.
The two schools to be ranked as partially meeting expectations, Colter Elementary School and Jackson Hole Middle School, barely missed the mark to be classified as meeting expectations — in the case of the middle school, on the cusp by a tenth of a point.
The report for the 2017-18 school year provides information on how well schools are doing according to state and federal accountability laws. No local schools were identified as struggling enough to need federal support.
Schools receive one of four performance ratings on a statewide level: exceeding expectations, meeting expectations, partially meeting expectations or not meeting expectations. Of Wyoming schools, 55.2 percent are meeting or exceeding expectations.
Four indicators are used in the ratings: achievement, growth, equity and English learner progress (shortened to the acronym ELP).
In a press release, state Superintendent Jillian Balow said she hoped the report’s information will “be a catalyst for discussions at the local level on how our schools can continue to do their best for all students.”
Here in Teton County that conversation is revolving around how to support students learning English.
Teton County Superintendent Gillian Chapman noted room for improvement with older English Language Learners, or ELLs, especially those who haven’t exited from ELL support for several years (by fourth or fifth grade if they begin in kindergarten) or haven’t been in the school district for long. That, she said, isn’t unique to Teton County.
“The younger we get students into our schools, the faster they are acquiring language,” Chapman said. “Those are certainly celebrations for us, and we need to figure out how to replicate that at the middle school and the high school with kids that maybe we haven’t had as much time with, just to speed up that language acquisition and vocabulary acquisition.”
Chapman said the district needs to concentrate on vocabulary development, particularly as content becomes more rigorous. If older students in challenging classes don’t understand vocabulary, they also don’t understand the content.
“We have to stay focused on what we need to do differently because the things we have done in the past aren’t working,” she said. “There’s a sense of urgency around it because it’s not meeting our expectations.”
Focusing on learning English
University of Wyoming College of Education associate professor Jenna Shim focuses on English language learners in Wyoming getting the support they need within the education systems. They’re already at a disadvantage, she said, when the law requires them to take standardized exams in content areas after being in the U.S. for only one year. Stanford University research shows it takes between four and seven years to learn academic language.
“They’re going to lack a lot of knowledge and a lot of vocabulary to show what they know,” Shim said.
She agreed that middle and high school ELL students need teachers trained to teach English as a Second Language. Research she did in Albany County School District No. 1 found that communications between ELL teachers and mainstream teachers needs to increase for students to be successful.
But training doesn’t happen overnight.
“The frustration, of course, is that these things take a long time,” Shim said. “To actually show the outcome of teaching and learning or instructional strategies taught by these trained teachers takes a long time. And often we’re very eager and we’re very passionate about increasing student achievement, which sometimes leads to impatience. We want to see the results right away but we don’t see the results right away.”
Research, Shim said, addresses many misconceptions about children learning a second language that could be helpful in considering the work Teton County schools have ahead of them.
For starters, children don’t necessarily learn quicker than adults. Research arguing that the earlier children begin to learn a second language the better doesn’t always hold up in school settings, and studies also indicate that increased exposure to English at the expense of a student’s first language doesn’t always speed up English acquisition.
Plus, students’ ability in conversational English shouldn’t be confused with their proficiency in more complex academic language.
“Sometimes it’s easy for teachers or educators to think, ‘So-and-so is communicating fluently with their teachers or their peers, why are they not performing well academically?’” Shim said.
A new test introduced last year complicated instruction.
“After the work our teachers have done and continue to do, I’m very confident going into the assessment period later this spring,” Chapman said.
She said that no matter what, test scores shouldn’t be a defining label for a school or a student.
“I keep in mind that it’s a snapshot of a student’s day,” she said.
Chapman prefers to define success through the lens of the district’s holistic initiative, Success 2022, which seeks to make every third-grader a proficient reader and mathematician, every eighth-grader a writer and every graduate “life ready” by 2022.
Despite the support many English language learners need to meet standardized test benchmarks, Chapman said she’s still “absolutely” confident in the viability of the goals.
“It’s a lofty goal,” she said. “And frankly, some experts in the field have said it’s not possible. But as a parent of 2,900-plus kids, I’m not ever going to sell one of my kids short. I believe that when we have high expectations and we have highly trained staff and we are providing the support each students needs to be successful, I don’t see any reason why we can’t meet these goals.”