‘We have big work to do’: Summit School District shares plan to better support English learners

Summit Middle School is pictured on the afternoon of Thursday, Oct. 13, 2022. CMAS test scores from the 2021-2022 school year revealed a massive disparity between test performance of Summit Middle School English Language Learners and non-English Language Learners.
Tripp Fay/For Summit Daily News

Editor’s note: This is Part 3 of a three-part series looking into Summit School District’s 2021-22 test data.

Recently, Summit High School Hispanic or Latino students shared with Summit School District Superintendent, Tony Byrd, that more cultural and linguistic representation and celebration would have improved their education. 

A similar message was shared by Hispanic or Latino Summit middle schoolers who graduated from Summit’s bilingual elementary schools. 

Students reported that they have experienced racist remarks, division amongst white and Hispanic students and little to no discussion of Hispanic heritage or culture in class. There is no demographic or diversity information on the website, only about 8% of teachers within the Summit School District are Hispanic or Latino and there is no current information about how many teachers in the school district are bilingual. 

School test scores have also fallen each year for the past three years among English language learners. This year, however, officials said test scores showed the urgency in which the school needs to support ELL students, who didn’t reach the “approached expectations” category of the CMAS language arts test. 

“I will say, yet again, we have big work to do, and we have big-system-change work to do to better serve the needs of our students,” said Summit School District Board of Education President Kate Hudnut. 

Back on track (stability)

Summit School District data and assessment coordinator, Ross Morgan, theorizes that the district’s recent low test numbers are linked to turmoil within high-level positions of the school.

“We have a lot of visions that have changed every year,” Morgan said. “So trying to get traction on a vision that’s going to take years to roll out when the person is leaving, again, is really, really hard.”

Therefore, a unified front to support students may be the solution, he said. 

“From the superintendent down to the classroom teacher, every single person working on the same strategies, the same approach, to get all of our students meeting grade level expectations,” Morgan said. 

Hudnut said Byrd is their key to success. 

“I will say that his expertise and systems change and looking at measurable goals and strategies is something that I have not seen since I started on the board in 2017,” Hudnut said. “I paint that not to dismiss the work of predecessors but to say I think we’re in very good hands with Tony.”

When Byrd committed to the school district, he signed a 10-year contract. Over the summer, he came up with a plan for the 2022-2023 school year to ensure progress. 

The goals were: first, to ensure effective implementation of year two of the district’s five year strategic plan that was created last summer. Second, to build strong connections with internal and external constituents who support the work of the district and the community at-large. Third, to identify and share the current state of student performance in the district and build systems and structures that will improve student achievement. 

The last two goals were aimed at land use and housing for the district’s workforce.

In 2021, the board approved the five-year plan to hopefully reach goals that would “move the needle” on student success, Hudnut said. She added that these goals will be measured by test scores, data and other metrics. 

Checks and balances (Accountability)

According to Morgan, the school has not paid close enough attention to data in the past. 

This has reportedly led to confusion where individual student success cannot be aligned with state expectations — because no one knows where the numbers should be. 

“When people don’t look at the numbers, we don’t know,” Morgan said. “That’s where we’ve been at — is we haven’t really been critiquing how we are doing against how we’re doing on the state.”

Morgan aims to be transparent with teachers. He plans to inform them throughout the year of where numbers are and where they should be. 

To encourage accountability at the administrative level, Morgan also partners with the District Accountability Committee, a state-mandated group intended to insert parent voices into district decisions, performance and action. 

Parents Noel Wheeler and Milena Quiros are the co-chairs. Recently, the committee finished developing a group of unified improvement plans for each school in the district. 

After identifying where each school could show improvement, the committee collaborates with parents, community members and principals. Changes are made, then the unified improvement plans are wrapped up and presented to the board as a recommendation, Wheeler said. 

Wheeler added that the goal of this year’s committee was to adhere as close as possible to the Colorado Department of Education’s standards and expectations. ELL students were also a focus of last year’s and this year’s plan.

“We want to make sure that from a social emotional perspective, we’re creating a forum where those students are comfortable asking for help, and understanding that it’s okay to need the help, and that their peers are supporting through that as well,” Wheeler said. 

The committee also strives to support families of students who do not speak English. Committee meetings have childcare and food available to lessen the barrier of attending outside of work hours. There is also a translator and headsets available.

“Most importantly, I think, you know, we do want to understand how we can help serve the needs of our English language learning families and help them support their children,” Wheeler said. 

Quiros is proud of the work they have done this year. 

“The (unified improvement plan) is a huge piece because we create success for our kids, and that’s the way that we are gonna smoothly make these scores grow,” Quiros said. At the end of the day, we want these kids to be at the same level of the data of the English speakers.”

However, Wheeler cautioned that improvement may take awhile. 

“(The district is) trying to educate, have professional development and education plans within all of our schools and all of our grade levels and those things take time,” Wheeler said. “And it takes time for us to understand and really see kind of the output of that.”

Daily differences 

Deborah Romero, a professor who specializes in teacher education at the University of Northern Colorado, said though it seems counterproductive, allowing bilingual students to engage with content in their own language encourages “transferability.” 

“If a child comes to you, and they’re able to read something in Spanish, then provide them materials in Spanish to help transition them into the classroom into the content matter,” Romero said. “If a child can do basic, basic arithmetic in Spanish, then allow them to use Spanish while they’re trying to solve the problem.”

Other techniques can weave student’s backgrounds into content matter. For example, Romero described a way to teach a room full of diverse students about the water cycle. 

“I might ask them, ‘Hey, what do you know about what happens after a rainstorm?’ Talk to me about where you’ve lived and the different kinds of rainstorms you’ve seen,” Romero said. 

Answers may be anywhere from children who may say it barely rains where they live, to children who have seen water evaporate on a hot afternoon, to children who have seen it rain everyday in a tropical environment. That way the teacher can piece together backgrounds to make it digestible for all students. 

“If a student can’t connect to it, they’re not going to learn it right to be able to connect new knowledge to some prior schema, some sort of the cultural pattern and cognitive system in their brain,” Romero said. 

Moving forward

A unified goal, more support for teachers, different approaches to learning and a steady superintendent are all areas officials have said the school will be focused on moving forward. There will also be increased conversations about the school’s budget, according to Hudnut and Morgan. 

Morgan said the goal is to “Work with teachers through professional development, through designing goals that our schools are implementing and measuring themselves against over the course of the year to really see if we’re putting in the right systems and the right pieces to ensure that we’re seeing these kids growing.”

Byrd assured that plans for teacher training are in the works. The district also may hire an external organization to audit the district’s English language programming, Byrd said, though it’s not official yet. 

In addition, the Summit will be looking at other comparable districts with similar demographics that are outperforming them to see what they can mimic. 

“If you’ve got something that’s working, we want to learn from you,” Byrd said. “So part of what we’ll do — whether it’s Eagle or other people — will be learning, Eagle is one example, from people who are doing better.”

As for the transition from elementary to middle school, some students say the change is drastic. Therefore, Byrd said has been in meetings about creating a potential dual language middle school model. 

The one thing Byrd will not do is hold students back.

“Students are held back socially and emotionally — it’s a very tumultuous time for students, and holding them back is nothing but demoralizing.

Morgan said the state of the district has been constantly on his mind. 

“That worry is driving me to figure out what I can do better to support leaders, to support teachers in implementing what’s going on in their classroom, of making sure that the decisions and the the processes that I’m putting in place are in alignment and are strategic with everything else that’s going on within our district,” Morgan said. “That’s what keeps me awake at night.”

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