For years, Mark Thompson, principal of Maplewood Elementary School in Greeley, Colorado, was convinced of the immense potential of his school’s English learners. But he was frustrated by the negative picture that standardized tests painted of them. Indeed, as recently as four years ago, the Colorado Department of Education (CDE) classified Maplewood as a low-performing school in need of a Priority Improvement Plan, a rating based on inadequate student academic achievement and growth. “We realized we had to find better ways to get the scholars engaged, to get the content across,” he said.

That was when the Greeley-Evans School District reached out to WestEd for help figuring out how to better support the success of its English learners, who comprise almost one-third of the district’s student population. WestEd worked closely with the district — meeting with educators, administrators, and other stakeholders, reviewing student performance data, and examining district instructional practices — to develop a customized Master Plan for English Learner Success. The plan includes action steps to strategically build each school’s capacity to ensure high-quality instruction for all students, with a particular focus on boosting the academic success of English learners.

The Master Plan is key to ensuring that English learners in the district receive the support they need to thrive. The plan involves an integrated approach to learning in which English learners access standards-aligned academic content, while also receiving language supports and scaffolds to meaningfully make sense of the content.

“It’s about equity,” says Ruth Sebastian, a school and district improvement facilitator at WestEd. “Giving every student access to rigorous, grade-level content and providing them with the supports they need to be successful. There’s no watering down of the curriculum.”

Finding ways to support the more than 40 percent of Maplewood’s students who are English learners is a high priority for Thompson and his staff. The school’s 625 students have a diverse makeup, with 64 percent identifying as Hispanic, 16 percent as White, 9 percent as Black, and 8 percent as Asian, and 93 percent of the student body eligible for free or reduced-price lunch.

Today, Maplewood enjoys CDE’s top rating, that of a school with a Performance Plan that is “meeting expectations on the majority of performance metrics” measured by the state.

As for Maplewood’s students, they wear uniforms and are known as “scholars,” a term Thompson says helps create a culture of high academic standards and elevates the students’ school experience. “That’s who they are — young, intellectual scholars who love high expectations. The more we can build up our scholars’ resilience, perseverance, and self-confidence, the better chance they have to succeed.”

Recently, more of Maplewood’s English learners are on track to achieve English language proficiency. In 2020, for example, 77 percent advanced one or more proficiency levels, compared with 67 percent in 2018.

It’s about equity — giving every student access to rigorous, grade-level content and providing them with the supports they need to be successful.

According to Thompson, improvement has come about by creating “an environment that fosters autonomy, competence, and human connection,” and by developing high-interest, exciting lessons that are “powerful enough over time” to boost language skills.

An Integrated Approach to Learning

The first few years of implementing the Master Plan involved intensive coaching and support from WestEd — all designed to build the district’s capacity to sustain and scale the work across its schools. The Master Plan is based on the premise that subject-area content and language need to be taught in tandem. “The bottom line,” says Sebastian, “is that students learn content while using language and learn language while engaging with content.” Grounded in research, the integrated approach “ensures students interact with each other around core content in meaningful ways to explore topics they’re interested in and curious about.”

Teaching and Learning Cycle. At the heart of the Master Plan is the Teaching and Learning Cycle (TLC), a framework that teachers use to design and facilitate instruction and that leads to academic writing. The TLC involves a genre-based instructional approach that supports students as they critically consider the types of texts they are reading and writing, and the specific tenets (purpose, structure, and language features) particular to that genre.

In Sebastian’s words, the TLC “taps into students’ cultural and linguistic assets and background knowledge and helps them structure their thoughts and ideas.” The TLC involves intentionally having students listen, discuss, read, write, and reflect in ways that develop language and content in tandem. “We’re not teaching vocabulary in isolation,” says Sebastian, “but rather we’re using language in targeted ways to engage with content.”

High-Yield Pedagogical Practices. Embedded in the TLC are a number of High-Yield Pedagogical Practices (HYPPs), which provide illustrative examples of evidence-based instructional practices that integrate content learning with language and literacy development. One HYPP, for instance, involves “unpacking” sentences. To do this, a teacher selects a particularly dense sentence that is central to the topic at hand. The teacher then guides students through a structured process of unpacking the sentence in meaningful chunks — discussing the meaning of the chunks, and the sentence as a whole, in relation to the big ideas they are studying. In this process, students also see and discuss how authors use language to incorporate complex, connected ideas in various ways.

Sebastian notes that when designing lessons utilizing the TLC, teachers ask themselves, “What type of support do I need to put in place to help my students engage with this material?” Those sorts of questions, she says, help teachers refrain from “watering down” the curriculum, and instead prompt them to “help students structure their thoughts about the content while building their oral and written language.” Such supports might include having students collaborate with a partner or respond to open-ended prompts from their teacher designed to simultaneously develop academic language and literacy, analytical practices, and deep content understanding.

What keeps the students motivated? According to Thompson, it’s the content. “Scholars are most engaged when they’re learning interesting, real-world content,” he says. For example, Maplewood fifth graders were asked to compare and contrast the indifference demonstrated toward the Jewish population during the Holocaust with that depicted in the lyrics to the song “In the Ghetto” describing the cyclical poverty and violence experienced by Black Chicagoans. Another topic that resonated with students, notes Thompson, focused on how the U.S. Congress differs from the Greeley City Council.

“We noticed right away that once the scholars began connecting with the content, they started paying attention, talking with each other in academic ways, and engaging with each other intellectually,” Thompson said.

More Evidence of Success

Thompson says he’s encouraged by Maplewood students’ willingness to grapple with challenging material. “They read, listen, share, then reread together,” he says. “The teacher asks a leading question and then lets the scholars work through the text to find the answer. Then they speak and write, in English, in meaningful ways about what they’re learning.”

Students’ self-esteem has soared, according to Cassandra Guy, elementary coordinator of the district’s Culturally and Linguistically Diverse program. She recalls talking to a Maplewood student who told her, “I love it here because I’m in charge of my own learning. People here let me talk and show my perspective. I think I would be a good lawyer someday — I hear that I can make a good argument!”

Indeed, Thompson points out that many English learners at Maplewood have become more confident and proactive over the last few years, embracing their roles as scholars. One group of fifth graders spearheaded a community-wide drive to collect school supplies for students in need, a project that involved research, planning, and report writing — culminating in an appearance before the Greeley-Evans School Board by one of the group’s scholars. (View this video, starting at the 6:10 mark, to see the group’s representative, Lucky Luciano, speak at a school board meeting.) Other Maplewood students now serve on the district’s School Accountability Committee. Still others point with pride to samples of their writing displayed throughout the school.

Moreover, Colorado Measures of Academic Success assessment data provide hard evidence of English learners’ achievement. According to a state report on student Median Growth Percentiles, or the degree to which student performance changes over time, the growth percentile for Maplewood English learners increased from 50.5 in 2017 to 65.5 in 2019, the most recent year for which data are available. According to the CDE, growth percentiles between 65 and 100 represent “high growth.”

Like many districts across the country, COVID-19 forced Greeley to shift to distance learning in spring 2020. The instructional approach laid out in the Master Plan for English Learner Success supported educators to maintain a focus on providing high-quality instruction to English learners. The elementary coordinator reported to Sebastian that many teachers adapted HYPPs to be suitable for distance learning settings and they kept oral and written language development as a priority in their lesson design and implementation. The 2020/21 school year saw schools across the district gradually transition back into classroom settings.

Sebastian says the major lesson that educators can take away from the turnaround seen in the Greeley-Evans School District is the importance of ensuring that all students, no matter their level of English language proficiency, have the opportunity to master grade-level content — something she contends is possible if students are given appropriate support.

“I love it when I hear students who are collaborating with their peers say, ‘Oh, now I get it!’” Sebastian says. “And they proceed to use their language skills to share about what they’ve learned. Don’t underestimate them. Instead, raise that bar, and students will meet it.”