Special ed or language-led? | SummitDaily.com

Special ed or language-led?

by Reid Williams

– 30 percent of Summit students qualify for free and reduced-price lunches; 75 percent of English language-learners qualify.

– Of the more than 400 ESL students in Summit schools, about 70 percent were born outside the United States and have lived here one to four years on average.

– About 10 percent of Summit students have special needs (learning disabilities, emotional/behavorial disorders, etc.). An equal percent have been identified as gifted and talented, and some students fall under both categories.

– Identifying ESL students as gifted or learning disabled can be hampered by the language barrier and a lack of documentation on the child’s history. While about 430 ESL students are currently enrolled, the district has served as many as 600 ESL students this year; transiency contributes to the lack of documentation.

– A committee of 20 teachers, principals, paraprofessionals, school nurses and psychologists, and community advocates are reviewing the ESL program and developing recommendations for the school board on how to improve the program, including revising the process by which students’ needs are identified.

DILLON VALLEY – As more and more English as a Second Language students stay put in Summit Schools, more and more are referred to elementary school psychologist Robin Ackerman.

Less transiency and more time in one school means more data – a longer paper trail of tests and observations to help Ackerman, teachers and parents decide if a child can make it in a typical classroom, or if he or she needs special accommodations. Nine years ago, when Ackerman joined the Summit School District, she received zero ESL student referrals. This year, she’s had five.

“What I see happening is we’re starting to get longevity,” Ackerman said. “And in some cases, we see kids who aren’t progressing the way they should. They’ve been here for three years, for example, but they’re at this level down here when they should be up here.”

One of Ackerman’s chief responsibilities as school psychologist is assessing students to find out what’s behind the discrepancy in age and ability. She administers tests to distinguish between motivational and behavioral obstacles, learning disabilities and physical handicaps. She also talks to teachers and parents, and looks through school records to make a diagnosis.

In the case of most students, this is a great deal of work, but it’s as straightforward as a phone call and a conversation.

“With ESL students, it’s not easy,” Ackerman said. “The program has had so many coordinators that there’s never been time to centralize all the records on students – and that’s if we have them all. Not every student comes with all that background on file.

“And for me to pick up a phone and try to talk to the parents in Spanish, a lot would get lost in the translation.”

It makes a difference

The accuracy of the identification process has serious consequences. Ackerman gave two examples:

n A second-grader’s teacher reports the student is having literacy difficulties and calls on Ackerman. A few interviews reveal the student never fully learned the alphabet. Through the district’s student study team (SST) process, a paraprofessional is assigned to help the student with that skill, a schedule is outlined for the teacher to judge the student’s progress and the team agrees on where to file all the documentation. A month later, the student is making progress.

n Ackerman and an SST team sit down to discuss a third-grader who is missing benchmarks for that level. It’s only after research and discussion the group discovers the student was placed in third grade based on age. The student never attended kindergarten in Mexico, and completed first grade twice after being retained the first time.

“A lot of times, it’s not until we all sit down together that we discover we’ve missed big things,” Ackerman said. “If it’s physical or clearly obvious, we jump right on it. But without the documentation of the student’s history, it takes time to see something like a learning disability. And unfortunately, the students who show up with the complete record aren’t the ones who are struggling.”

Ackerman knows what she needs to do to improve the process, but couldn’t get the support of the school board to do it. She applied to take a sabbattical leave: a reduced salary to spend a school year becoming fluent in Spanish and researching how school districts on the Front Range have adapted to handle the influx of English language-learners.

“Becoming fluent in Spanish was a big part of it,” Ackerman said. “But more importantly was learning how other programs have developed ways to streamline registration, how they gather information and to research where we go once we have all that. I would have been able to establish norms for growth in ESL students so that we could better say, “This is just a language difficulty, but this is something more serious.'”

The school board voted not to fund sabbaticals next year, citing financial uncertainty in the budget and voters’ expectations that extra funds would go to improving teacher salaries and educational programs. The decision disappointed Ackerman, but she’s optimistic about other school district efforts aimed at helping ESL students.

Parent involvement helps every professional who works with students, Ackerman said. Several efforts are under way to reach out to families and explain how parents can help with their child’s education. The ESL program is centralizing its data files. Ackerman said being able to look in one computer database and find all the relevant information on a student will save time. And more time for teachers to collaborate is on her wish-list, too.

“I don’t want every child in special education, not at all,” Ackerman said. “It’s not a cure-all. But there’s a very big difference between speaking well and the rich cognitive language that’s required to succeed in the classroom and on tests. The better tools we have to differentiate students in those terms, the better we can serve all their needs.”

Reid Williams can be reached at (970) 668-3998 ext. 237 or rwilliams@summitdaily.com.

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