Helping Carson schools' English language learners in COVID a slow climb

Carson City School District's administrative office.

Carson City School District's administrative office.

Tracking an English learner’s progress already varies from the typical student’s academic path under usual circumstances, but with COVID-19, it’s challenging and overwhelming, Carson City School District director of elementary education and English learner programs Chad Hicks says.

In fact, it’s difficult to gauge how most English language learner (ELL) students in the district are faring given this year’s pandemic conditions. Most are home trying to keep up with their regular workload on their district-issued Chromebook throughout the school day. They’re struggling to learn English without consistent one-on-one instruction from a teacher or paraprofessional. Like other families, their parents don’t know how to help, juggling their own jobs among other concerns or are unfamiliar with or overwhelmed by with their children’s lessons in a different language.

Even with Gov. Steve Sisolak’s latest appeal for Nevadans to stay home to get the coronavirus under control before imposing more restriction, teachers are hopeful they can see their students again soon.

“Probably 90% of our teachers want their students back (in a classroom),” Hicks said last week.

It worries Hicks not being able to get these ELL students back on target faster, though the recent choice to bring at least the younger grades back to school is a step forward, he says.

“Our (kindergarten) through second grade teachers are super excited,” Hicks said. “It was so nice the other day. I was just staring at the playground (watching younger students play). It was so nice to see them interacting. It brought back a sense of normalcy. This is our business. We’re not just going to an empty school.”

Hicks has worked as a principal or administrator at three Title 1 schools during his career in Washoe County, the state’s second largest district, to help various schools’ learners become proficient in English or other languages. Under Washoe’s former superintendent Pedro Martinez, the administration set out to establish a World Language Academy, but at the time it was one of the lowest-performing districts for ELL programs. However, its goal of teaching students Mandarin was very ambitious, he said.

“We did very well,” he said. “Students left with 70% proficiency.”

He also served as area superintendent and oversaw Washoe’s Zoom schools. He had a passion for working with at-risk students at Anderson and Glen Duncan elementary schools.

Now he’s in his third year at Carson City School District, overseeing its elementary education program with a new project in mind.

But first, he’s had to take a look back at how its ELL students have performed, and to do so, they’re monitored through the World-Class Instructional Design and Assessment (WIDA) ACCESS language proficiency assessments, a series of tests given annually to K-12 students in WIDA Consortium member states. Nevada has been a part of WIDA since 2012.

Carson City’s student tests were taken in February before COVID-19 was announced as a pandemic in March. Last month, Hicks presented on the district’s ACCESS results to the school board from the 2019-20 school year.

The ACCESS exam screens ELL students to determine language proficiency when entering a school system. The exam looks at English language learners and the four language domains – listening, speaking, reading and writing – and is rigorous, according to Hicks. Composite scores demonstrate proficiency, and the district’s goal is to achieve .5% growth per student from year to year.

Proficiency levels from 1 to 6, ranging from “entering” to “reaching,” also determine whether a student is Limited English Proficient, or levels 1 to 4, or Fluent English Proficient, or levels 5 and 6.

However, some students often have to be caught up depending on how behind they are, and then instruction is geared toward a specific grade level with each year.

“If they do come in later and they are behind, we have to do something to meet their needs,” Hicks said. “And that’s why we can’t do it in a single 45-minute block of language-explicit instruction. It has to be all day every single day, and it has to be intentional.”

The results from last year varied, according to his presentation. For example, a total of 69 students taking the test at Empire Elementary School did not meet adequate growth progress while 44 students did, and 57 students at Mark Twain Elementary did not meet AGP while 65 students did. At Carson Middle School, 58 students did not meet AGP while 21 did, and at Eagle Valley Middle, 45 made AGP but 12 did not. At the high school level, among Carson High students taking the test, 141 did not meet AGP while 28 did, and at Pioneer High, a grand total of 8 students took the test, none of whom met AGP. These are only a portion of the data that’s available from Carson City, and everything is broken down by the students’ language levels.

But making sure English language learners are able to excel academically and not merely stay on par with their native-speaking peers in the age of COVID-19 is Hicks’ top worry. Giving them their essential language skills when they need individualized attention in person while being required to maintain social distance is a poor strategy, he said.

It’s harder to reinforce if they’re only given that 45-minute window of language-explicit instruction per school day in a virtual environment while trying to learn all of their other subject matter at home.

Worse, no significant language or academic development is occurring with testing coming again next quarter, he worries.

“It’s real hard, and I give a big pat on the back to all the teachers,” he said. “It really is challenging day by day, and they’ve been tremendously resilient. The number one frustration, and I’ve heard it from all the schools, is we know all the English language learners are home, and for whatever reason, they’re not in the seat learning. They’re not making progress.”

Trustee Lupe Ramirez, an advocate of dual-language students in the district in need of stronger immersion programs from an early age, said it’s critical for Carson City’s administration to reach out to families for help.

“I do think building a relationship between the parents and the teachers/(teachers’) aide is crucial,” Ramirez said. “We need to remind the parents that they are part of the team. If the district is providing the proper training for the teachers and (teachers’) aides, the students will have a strong support system.”

To reinforce this effort, Hicks said he’s planning a new venture that already is building the support of the district’s ESL teachers.

“As soon as we’re allowed to have groups in the buildings, and hopefully as soon as COVID rates go down, I’m setting pupil advisory meetings at each of the school sites,” Hicks said. “I’ve done this at the Gleason center and the district administrative office. I want to meet parents at the school sites. They need support for their remote learning. There’s a lot of things to learn like Zoom and Google Classroom that parents don’t know how to support their children with, so we’re going to teach Classroom and help parents as best as we can.”

Hicks said children adapt very well overall and can adjust to most situations even as they’re trying to learn a new language.

“The number one thing we need to do when they’re learning in a seat again is to build structures and have them collaborating and interacting with each other,” Hicks said. “I’m just hoping soon we get back to business as usual as far as the learning and making progress.”


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