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Policy in Action: An afternoon with Sawyer Elementary ELLs

  ·  Cristina Pacione-Zayas

Sawyer Elementary StudentsEducation policy is best understood from the classroom, not an office. That’s why the Latino Policy Forum seeks opportunities to visit local schools and education centers to observe first-hand how our advocacy efforts support Latino students and our mission to ameliorate Latino achievement gaps. That’s also why we jumped at the opportunity to join the Chicago Education Foundation  in a visit to Ms. Carmina Aguirre’s first grade bilingual classroom at Sawyer Elementary inGagePark.

Gage Park is one of the largest and fastest growing Latino community areas in Chicago, with large concentrations of English Language Learners (ELLs). The visit would offer an opportunity for Forum staff to see how Sawyer was using technology to boost literacy amongst its ELL population—and offered some unexpected validation for the importance of our advocacy efforts in other areas as well.

Fostering 21st Century Literacy

 I joined Ms. Aguirre and her 34 fidgety, uniformed first graders in the computer lab at Sawyer’s Early Childhood Developmental Center, where students were engrossed in the Raz-Kids literacy program purchased with Chicago Education Foundation funds. 

The outer space-themed Raz-Kids is an interactive computer program that provides each student a unique login and selection of books based on his or her reading level, as well as an online avatar.  Students progress through the various levels, building English reading fluency as they go.  Moving up from level A to Z, Raz-Kids students start out working with a visual of the book pages and an audio narration (the program highlights the words as it reads them aloud).  Next, the student reads the same book back to the program before taking a comprehension quiz.  If students pass the quiz, they unlock additional books and receive points. Points translate into online currency to purchase items (everything from telescopes to rocket ships) for their avatar—essentially an incentive that encourages active participation.  

Ms. Aguirre told me the program has done wonders to boost her students’ phonemic awareness, English fluency, and overall reading comprehension.  She carefully tracks progress and adjusts book options so that the material will continue to address students’ needs as identified by the program’s built-in assessments. But initially, implementing the program was a challenge, especially given some students’ lack of computer literacy. Some students took 30 minutes just to log on to the program for the first time  and struggled with completing comprehension quizzes accurately and within allotted times as many had never even used a mouse.  

(Lower levels of computer literacy can be expected from young children, but Aguirre suggested the culprit could have been lack of computer access in students’ homes. The Forum is concerned about the implications of this “digital divide,” especially as it relates to standardized testing and ELLs, especially as Common Core assessments will exclusively be administered on computers.) 

But ultimately, Aguirre says she finds the program incredibly helpful—it provides her with real-time data to that helps her make curricular decisions and meet the differentiated needs of her students. And when it comes to handling those students, she’ll take all the help she can get, as Aguirre no longer has an aide due to budget cuts. My observations in her class validated the urgency of the Forum’s advocacy efforts in another area: addressing the overcrowding that plagues schools in too many Latino communities. 

Tackling Overcrowding in Latino Schools

Anyone who has spent quality time with first graders knows the amount of energy required to keep up with their curiosity and activity. And with 34 active first-graders in her charge, Aguirre certainly has her hands full—especially without the assistance of her bilingual aide. While her class seems large, it is just shy of being considered “overcrowded” under CPS guidelines, though it far exceeds the state’s average class size of 21 students. Research is increasingly validating the benefits of small class sizes for ELL students, meaning a smaller class size would not only be easier for Aguirre, but would create an ideal learning environment for her students.

And Aguirre isn’t alone: Sawyer’s current roster is 1,899 students long. During our visit, I saw a herd of temporary mobile units occupying what was once a playground in order to keep pace with the school’s population growth. The school has even constructed another building dedicated solely to early childhood education in an effort to provide relief for its overcrowded classrooms.

The need for additional seats in primary classes is highlighted by the practice of offering only half-day kindergarten in most Latino neighborhoods  due to overcrowding. The phenomenon was well documented in a report commissioned nearly ten years ago by former State Senator Miguel Del Valle, now the head of the statewide P-20 Council.  Despite those findings, half-day kindergarten is still a standard in Latino communities, as well as across the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) system. The trend prompted CPS to begin to roll out universal full-day kindergarten across the district starting in fall 2013.

The Latino Policy Forum recognizes that demand for high quality education outpaces supply (or space) in too many Latino communities. While the Forum celebrated a significant victory earlier this year—a $45 million grant to construct or rehab early childhood education facilities in high-need communities across Illinois—there is still much work to do, both in preschool or elementary classrooms like Aguirre’s, as well as in the higher grades.

But classroom visits only provide a glimpse into the daily triumphs and challenges faced by all teachers—and the visit to Aguirre’s class was no exception While this resourceful  teacher is serving her students well  by seeking outside funds to  boost her students’ language development  and gracefully managing a near-overcrowded classroom, these conditions should not be status quo.  As research firmly points to the many academic benefits of biliteracy and the importance of strengthening students’ native language to support second language acquisition, additional resources for teachers like Aguirre are critical.

As state investments have not kept pace with growth in the ELL population, the Latino Policy Forum works diligently to advocate for additional funds for bilingual education and resources to increase the bilingual workforce. These children—a rapidly growing percent of the nation’s young people—will soon be part of a nationwide demographic shift. To support these young Latino learners is just another means to working towards a strong shared future.   

(PHOTO: Latino Policy Forum)     

Posted In: Educators