A Co-Teaching Model Raises English Learner Proficiency


When the Saint Paul Public Schools began to offer special instructional services in 1975 to students who were learning English, the district assumed the need might just be short-term.

The need for these services was driven by what some considered a temporary migration of refugees from Southeast Asia. Instead, Minnesota continues to welcome a steady influx of new Americans from Southeast Asia plus Latin America, Somalia and, most recently, Burma.

Valeria SilvaValeria Silva

During the last 10 years alone, the number of students in St. Paul who live in homes where English is not the first language has risen from 34 percent to 45 percent.

In spite of the demand for these services, the Council of the Great City Schools, in its 2006 "Beating the Odds VI" report, points to Saint Paul Public Schools as making among the best gains of the organization's 67 urban school districts in closing the achievement gap between English language learners and non-ELL students.

The number of English language learners in St. Paul who were proficient on the state's 3rd-grade reading test increased from 30 percent to 52 percent between 2002 and 2005, outperforming the state cohort by 6 percent. In fact, ELL students in St. Paul have consistently outperformed their peers on state tests for the past seven years, particularly among students who have been in the district for two years or more.

Changing Situations
Two scenarios show how the district was able to move the needle on reducing the achievement gap.

Scenario 1: It's 1992, and an ELL teacher arrives at an elementary school in St. Paul to teach English to Hmong and other refugees and immigrants. Her Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages, or TESOL, classroom is in a portable building set up near the school. After two years of learning English, the students will move from the portable to general education classes.

Scenario 2: It's 2010, and an ELL teacher at the same elementary school now works in a general education classroom where he is co-teaching mathematics with the general education teacher.

The room is divided into two groups of students who are learning about whole numbers. The general education teacher is working with one group of students that includes higher-level ELLs who are able to use English to learn the new concepts. The other group, led by the ELL teacher, includes lower-level ELLs who understand the concepts but have yet to master the English words for them. A bilingual assistant is available to help explain the lesson in the student's native language.
These two scenarios illustrate the evolution of ELL instruction in our district from a pullout model to collaborative instruction.

Integrated Settings
When the school district first began implementing programs for English learners, elementary students would spend their first two years in TESOL centers that were set apart from the school campus. As a result of the segregation, students often were excluded socially and did not participate in general education recess, library, gym, music and other classes.

After two years in the TESOL centers, students would move to general education classes where they would get 30 to 45 minutes of English as a second language support per day. The general education teacher often discovered the English learners did not understand the words from the textbooks, did not comprehend what they were reading and struggled with advanced writing.

In 1998, the district began a different approach. Rather than teaching English to prepare students to learn academic content, ELL students were placed in general education classrooms where they learned the language through content.

It started at one elementary school, and there was some resistance from general education teachers. What am I going to do with the ELL kids? What will I do when the ELL teacher is not in the room? How will I teach both high-performing kids and students who have just arrived in the United States?

Contributing Factors
Ten years later, we have learned what factors are critical to success.

•  Support from leadership. The superintendent and central office granted broad authority to the ELL director. Top priorities included ensuring adequate funding (at some schools, funding intended for ELLs was being diverted to the general fund) and getting buy-in from general education teachers through multi-year professional development and support for the collaborative model. Principals provided common planning time for teachers, which was especially critical.

•  Integrate into general education. To integrate ELLs into general education classrooms, the district created the Language Academy, which featured the collaborative model of instruction. Up to nine students in a Language Academy classroom might be newcomers with low levels of English proficiency.

•  Support and oversight. The district provided ELL and general education teacher teams ongoing professional development on the collaborative model. Implementation, support and oversight were provided by teachers on special assignment who work with 10-17 schools each.

Why It Matters
A 2005 report from the Brookings Institution, "Mind the Gap," shows that closing the achievement gap is not only the right thing to do for students, but it also makes good business sense. The report shows the next generation of workers will be more racially and ethnically diverse than their predecessors, but too many of these young people lack the necessary education and skills to fill the jobs held by baby boomers who are reaching retirement age. The report says that economic studies forecast a diminished supply of skilled workers nationwide, so regions cannot rely heavily on attracting workers from elsewhere.

The Saint Paul Public Schools began to see significant improvement in achievement among English learners about five years after implementing the collaborative model. Success can happen. In the next 20 years, educators have the responsibility and opportunity to close the achievement gap to ensure that all students can contribute to the 21st-century economy.

Valeria Silva is superintendent of the Saint Paul Public Schools in St. Paul, Minn. E-mail: