Vista Charter Academy

English Learners Show Admirable Progress at Vista Charter Academy in Grand Rapids

By Cassandra Spratling

Three first graders huddle in a semi-circle at a table in a brightly decorated cubicle where Alyssa Claucherty guides them in the morning’s lesson. Their objective is to learn to retell a short story sequentially. The words– First, Second and Last– are boldly marked on cardboard cards. Marked below each word is its Spanish translation. Primero is printed below First, for example.

The teacher shuffles three cards, then places them on the table for the students to see. She explains that they will use the pictures to tell a story of what happens in the order it likely occurs.

The students partner up to talk for a few moments before coming together to share what they think is the right order. “First, the seed gets water,” says one student as she places the card with that image first. “Next, it grows a little,” offers another student moving the card that shows a small plant to the middle. “Last, the plant is big.”

“Very good,” Claucherty says, then asks them to retell the story from beginning to end, which each student does before moving to another set of sequencing cards.

The students are learning more than how to retell a story in order. They’ve been pulled out of their first-grade classroom for special instruction that helps them learn and understand English. All three students come from homes where Spanish is their first language. Their scores on a variety of assessments suggest they need additional support to speak, write and comprehend English.

This pull-out session is just one of several strategies used at Vista Charter Academy in Grand Rapids to help students who need additional help mastering the English language. About 40 percent of the 700 students grades pre-K thru 8 at Vista Charter are English Learners. It’s that very population that’s making notable above average growth toward proficiency in math and English Language Arts, according to data from 2017 to 2019 that was analyzed by Education Trust.

Small groups are key in a class when you have a lot of English Learners, because you don’t realize, if you have a class of 25 kids, you may be reaching 20 of the kids and the other 5 are sitting there and you’re thinking that they understand it and really, they don’t. But when you pull small groups, it’s more personable and you can really tell all the students that get it and (those that) don’t,”

— Brandalyn Hill

Fourth Grade Teacher

For example, in 2019, the latest year for which comparison data was available, 47.2 percent of English Learners showed above average growth in math, compared to 29.39 percent of students statewide. Also, the percent of English Leaners showing above average growth in math constantly grew during the period examined, at 47.2 percent in 2019, up from 31.3 percent in 2018, and up from 30.2 percent in 2017. English Learners showed above average growth in English Language Arts as well.

The school’s commendable progress in helping English Learners results from a concerted effort to assess their progress and give special attention to those who need it—whether in class or pull-out sessions. Teachers work to make sure students understand language, even in math classes. Furthermore, the school is a welcoming place for Spanish-speaking parents from the time they walk in the door.

Principal Kristen Hekkema says the school’s overall progress stems from its belief that all students can learn and reach their full potential. The school uses a variety of methods to help ensure that happens.

The school uses regular assessment data to guide instruction, pulling out students who need it for small-group instruction and having English Language teachers in classrooms to help make sure English Learners are comprehending the day’s lesson, in both math and English Language Arts classes.

During a recent visit, for example, teacher Emily Zamudio, who speaks Spanish, sat with a small group of fourth graders while English Language Arts teacher Ahmed Elmi taught the day’s lesson. As Elmi discussed a reading passage with the students, Zamudio quietly explained key words in the text. For example, a study question on the worksheet, asked for the outcome for one of the characters. “Do you understand the word ‘outcome’? Zamudio asked her group of five students. When no one responded, she explained that the worksheet is asking what happens as a result of something else.

Zamudio helped students underline key words in text and reviewed them with students before she or the students read the text. She later explained that EL teachers don’t lower the standards; they help students rise to the standards whether its front-loading reviews of vocabulary words, using pictures to go along with texts, or simply talking with students about what they’re about to read—before and afterward. Often, the strategies used for English Learners are strategies that enrich the learning of all students, she said.

A strong EL support staff with several Spanish-speaking persons is key to Vista Charter’s success, says fourth grade teacher Brandalyn Hill. Whether students are pulled out for small groups, or an additional teacher is in the classroom, all students and the teacher benefit, she says.

“Small groups are key in a class when you have a lot of English Learners, because you don’t realize, if you have a class of 25 kids, you may be reaching 20 of the kids and the other 5 are sitting there and you’re thinking that they understand it and really, they don’t. But when you pull small groups, it’s more personable and you can really tell all the students that get it and (those that) don’t,” Hill said.

The school’s success in helping English Learners with math was particularly noted by Education Trust researchers.

Lower School Dean Tiffany Williams attributes their above average success in math to the school’s practice of incorporating visuals to help make abstract math concepts clearer to students.

For example, she says, before doing math problems with leaves or apples, the students see, feel and use those objects. “We have students who go outside and collect leaves and we have leaves in the classroom so they can get that concrete thing of what a leaf is.” Afterwards, the students draw out their approach to solving a math problem.

“Once they have really gotten those steps down of handling and understanding what the item is, what we’re asking you to do, and then being able to draw a picture, we can then move into the more abstract learning approach, where the students are able to then write down the math problem and understand what those symbols mean, what addition means, what subtraction means.”

“Fall is a great time to learn about apples, and so we bring apples into the classroom, and we’re adding apples and we’re subtracting apples, and which apple is bigger, which apple is smaller?”

Principal Hekkema said having Spanish-speaking support staff was especially helpful during the pandemic when students learned from home. Five of the school’s 45-member teaching staff teach English Learners. Three of those five speak Spanish themselves.

The support given to Spanish-speakers extends to another critical rung in the school’s ladder to success: parent relationships. The school does several things to make sure the lines of communication with parents are wide open, starting with the two front-office staff members, both of whom are Spanish speakers. When a parent walks into the office, there’s immediately someone they can speak with, whether they speak English or not.

Parent engagement and support also build on the school’s progress. The school has several ways to communicate with its parents, many of whom do not speak English. Several teachers and support staff speak Spanish and the school’s online parent portal app has a program that translates from English to Spanish and vice-versa. Also, weekly newsletters as well as any other written communication is written in both Spanish and English.

The communication between the school’s staff and parents is a major part of what parent Mercedes Rodriguez appreciates about the school. Her son, Jatniel, now a 6th grader, has been at Vista since kindergarten. She took him out of another school that she described as unorganized. “I feel part of the family,” Rodriguez said through Rosie Diaz who translated for her. Rodriguez is originally from the Dominican Republic.

Rodriquez particularly recalls that when Jatniel was younger, he would shut down when he didn’t understand the lesson. The teacher noticed and began speaking in an especially gentle and encouraging manner to him. “That made him feel very comfortable and that really helped him open up and listen so that he can learn,” Rodriquez said. “Another thing that also helped him a lot…that also made a difference in his life, was that he would come home from school every day with a little note that said, “Jatniel had a fantastic day today. That made him just brighten up…it just made him feel so special.”

The school uses a variety of assessments, including an English proficiency exam called WIDA. The exam helps the school determine the amount of assistance each student needs, from daily pull-out sessions in small groups to assistance in the classroom. The WIDA exam is given to English Learners every year to help determine the amount of assistance needed.

The school also emphasizes helping students to self-assess. From grades 2 through 8, students track their own progress on various units at least every other week, whether it’s coloring in circles for younger kids or giving themselves a numerical grade for older kids. Regular testing helps familiarize them with the format for testing and builds their stamina for testing, Principal Hekkema said.

When students are keeping track, they’re more invested in their success, the principal says.

Teachers, support staff and deans also meet weekly to review where students stand and where adjustments need to be made.

From kindergarten through grade 3, the school uses a three-pronged instructional model for both math and reading. Every day students receive instruction from a teacher, instruction from an intervention specialist who’s often an English Language teacher, and independent instruction using an online program that tailors instruction to each student’s individualized needs. In math, that enrichment comes from a computerized program called Dreambox. For reading, the program is Lexia.

Another key strategy is making sure the school’s reading material reflects the diversity of the student body. About 90 percent of its pupils are students of color. “We are very intentional in being diverse (in texts for both reading and math),” says Wayne Hill, dean of students for grades three to five. “Students should see themselves reflected in what they read. They get more engaged if they see people who look like them.”

Parent Mercedes Rodriguez summed up the atmosphere that boosts learning for English Learners at Vista Charter Academy: “I don’t feel that I drop off my child at just any school.” Rather, she said, it’s like dropping her child off with family.”