“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.”