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Pilot project aims to improve ELL program

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The third-grader lay on the floor on his stomach on the fringe of a group of students, working intently in his math workbook. He looks up at teacher Courtney Hauge and said, "I did it."

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Hauge looks at his workbook and echoed, "You did it, all by yourself," and she holds up her hand for a high five.

On the other side of the room, teacher Carrie Thomas works with a circle of students, talking about multiplication and the different methods they could use to get a correct answer.

One floor up, a classroom buzzes with activity as a roomful of fourth-graders work on their math lesson.

They stand in small groups discussing their math vocabulary, words like "product," "quotient" and "dividend." They sit in circles on the floor with teachers Deb Andries and Mary Catherwood, and they discuss estimating.

Both rooms are busy, maybe even a bit loud, but the children don't stray from their purpose.

These teachers and students at Kennedy Elementary School in Willmar are participating in a pilot project to keep English Language Learner students in their regular classrooms for math class. Another team is co-teaching in fifth grade at Roosevelt Elementary.

Since last fall, ELL teachers have been paired with classroom teachers -- fourth-grade teacher Andries with ELL teacher Catherwood and third-grade teacher Hauge with ELL teacher Thomas.

So far, the teachers are pleased with the pilot project and with the positive response they've seen in their students.

The hope is the effort will help all the students gain a deeper understanding of their math concepts and help ELL students broaden their vocabulary.

'Part of a community'

ELL students get to stay in their classrooms for math class. Otherwise, they would leave for up to an hour in some cases for separate instruction. The students in the pilot project spend less time out of their classroom and more time with their peers.

"The kids stay in the classroom so they are part of a community," Andries said. "The students get a sense of that's where they belong."

Hauge said she likes the increased efficiency of having all the students stay in her classroom.

Janice Vazquez, the school district's ELL coordinator, said she is convinced that a teaching method that lessens the need to pull children out of their regular classrooms will benefit all children.

The teachers said they believe they have seen that benefit. Students who are native English speakers can be great role models for the students still learning English, Thomas said.

The program also brings teachers with different strengths into a classroom to work together. "The mainstream teacher has the expertise of math; the ELL teacher can help develop the language of math," Thomas said.

Hauge said she appreciates the chance to share her thoughts with another professional, because teachers so often work alone in their classrooms.

Another advantage the teachers listed -- if one teacher is speaking to the whole class, the other can keep an eye out for students who seem a little confused by a new concept.

At times, they break a class into small groups. "That many more kids get to talk," Andries said, and that helps them learn to put their reasoning into words.

That's important for the students, because state tests often ask students to write an explanation of how they solved a problem. It's no longer enough for students to show their math work on a test.

"We're seeing a huge growth in their ability to understand," Catherwood said.

Clustering

With the permission of parents, the pilot project has clustered children in the classrooms, Vazquez said.

For years, "we have worked so hard to get all the classrooms to look the same," with ELL students, special education students and mainstream students distributed evenly.

With clustering, some teachers have more ELL students and others have more students with other special needs. "The needs are still the same, but the classrooms look different," she said.

Kennedy Principal Scott Hisken said the classrooms still have similar ethnic breakdowns, but clustering provides the efficiency needed to make the project cost-neutral.

Eventually, he said, he'd like to see the effort expanded to include reading and writing.

The teachers in the pilot project said some school districts already have all their ELL instruction in classrooms.

"We're looking for a workable model," Vazquez said. Other programs have found that a ratio of one ELL teacher to three classroom teachers can work well.

There's a lot of interest in the concept. "We have had a number of teachers sign up to observe," Hisken said, and he hopes to be able to expand the program into kindergarten classrooms next year.

"It's been a very positive challenge for the teachers," he said.

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