News Blog for Seattle's Wallingford Neighborhood


Final Bell for Self-Contained Bilingual Classes

By Celina Kareiva, Mwiza Kalisa and Tiara Fernandes
April, 2011

Wendy Chapman crouches down to speak to her students. As classrooms empty out for the afternoon, kids cluster around her to talk about their day. Fragments of different languages punctuate the happy chatter as students migrate from their lockers to the playground. Chapman, a solid woman with short blonde hair and wire-rimmed glasses, asks the small crowd what they’re studying and inquires about their upcoming math test.

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Increasingly, her interactions with students have been reduced to these fleeting moments in the hallway and hurried conversations as she heads out the door. In the fall, she traded a full-time classroom of English Language Learner (ELL, formerly ESL) students, or non-native English speakers, for a cluttered office where she now spends three days a week.

The move signaled a switch to a new model of teaching that is gradually being implemented in schools across the district.

“In September we were moving back into this new building and I had a classroom, and I had a curriculum ready to go,” recalled Chapman, who says that she was given two days’ notice that for the 2010-11 school year she would be at Wallingford’s Hamilton International Middle School just three days a week. In 2009-10 the school’s staff included two ELL teachers and four Instructional Assistants. This year, with about half as many ELL students in attendance, Hamilton hosts one Instructional Assistant and Chapman, who teaches here three days a week.

Chapman used to teach all three grades together. She now floats between classes, helping ELL students with language arts and social studies while her assistant concentrates on the science and math curriculum.

“I had a wonderful curriculum last year where I taught phonics, reading skills, content and vocabulary—stuff that regular teachers don’t need to do because the students don’t need it,” she explained.

The changes are in large part a response to a 2008 report by the Council of the Great City Schools, which declared that Seattle’s ELL programs were “fragmented” and “weakly defined.” The audit presented 70 recommendations to serve the district’s 5,600 ELL students. The following year Veronica Gallardo, director of Seattle Public Schools’ department of ELL and international programs, promised to address the issue by creating team-teaching methods and incorporating higher proficiency learners into classes with native-speakers.

“The mandate was to completely reform the ELL services for our children. And so we are starting at ground zero as of two years ago,” Gallardo said. Two years later, 12 schools have made the switch, with 8 more planned to convert by 2014. At those that have transitioned, many teachers were caught unprepared. Implementation has been met with concerns that ELL students will be overlooked without a curriculum tailored to their varying levels of language proficiency.

The switch from a “pull-out,” or self-contained classroom model of teaching ELL students to a “push-in,” or integration model has been dramatic, admits Gallardo, but she believes it’s a step in the right direction. She hopes to see the district one day switch to a co-teaching system in which ELL specialists would instruct alongside mainstream faculty.

“[ELL teachers and instructional assistants] have been pressed pretty hard these last two years with all this change and reform,” Gallardo said. “But we really need to increase that professional development not only to our ELL teachers, but to our mainstream teachers because all of our ELL kids are now in the [standard] classrooms.”

Struggling to Keep Up

In Hamilton’s integrated classrooms, ELL students constitute one-third of the roster.

“I go in for an hour and then go out and move on to my next grade,” Chapman said, referring to the reduced time she now has with her ELL students. “I miss that connection.”

The intimate environment of the old model allowed students to set the pace of her lesson plans. Because members of the ELL program are often from refugee or immigrant families her curriculum focused on bringing the kids up to speed by breaking down elements of English that most of their peers intrinsically understood.

One seventh grade student from Japan has anxiety, and reads at a kindergarten level. Another seventh grader from Kenya has had only one year of schooling in the U.S. and is struggling to keep up with the current lesson plan on the American Revolution.

“What this push-in model doesn’t serve well are kids that are really new to the U.S., or new to English,” she said. “The vocabulary, they just don’t have it, the background knowledge and the context, they [don’t have it].”

Chapman believes that it is partly the success of previous year’s language learners that enabled the shift in teaching models. District-wide, Hamilton had the highest number of students graduate from the ELL program into mainstream classes. Last year there were 85 students; this year there are only 30. Because the program’s budget is based on the size of the student body, staff have been cut accordingly.

The new model also places strains on teachers unequipped to deal with students of such varying academic levels.

“I feel bad for the classroom teachers because they’re dealing with so many ability levels …It’s amazing what they’re asked to do with large classrooms that they’re already told are going to get next year,” Chapman said. “It’s setting [them] up for failure.”

Except for the occasional whisper or muffled giggle, Chris Davis’ students sit transfixed as he reads aloud, modifying his voice according to the action unfolding on the page. Thirty-three sixth graders arc around him, sitting under tables and pushed up against bookcases for their lesson on fiction writing.

He pauses to explain the “mountains,” or peaks of action that characterize fantasy novels. When he’s done, the students disperse, grabbing their own books to read quietly at their desks.

Davis has been a teacher at Hamilton Middle School for the past seven years. Though he describes himself as a “generalist,” having taught a number of different grades and subjects, this fall marked his first year of instruction with ELL students.

“It’s feels almost like [the ELL students were] an afterthought,” he said of the sudden switch to integrated classrooms. Though the implementation of the “push-in” model hasn’t significantly changed Davis’ teaching method, it does require that he tailor assignments and grading to each child’s language proficiency.

Alondra is originally from Mexico. Her family speaks English and Spanish at home. Her favorite subject is math. When she grows up she wants to be a doctor. She walks to school with her neighbor who is also her best friend. Alondra and her friends share their different cultures with each other even though sometimes it can be confusing. Photo: Celina Kareiva

This year is David’s first year in the United States. He was born in Russia and lived in Israel for the past 10 years. His family speaks Hebrew and Russian at home. He says the transition to Seattle was not really difficult for him. His classmates say he is a funny and hard working student. Photo: Celina Kareiva

Ahmed Ali is well known at B.F. Day for writing poetry about his family and friends. He is reciting one of his poems at Benaroya Hall in April. He says one of the challenges for him is not being familiar with some of the vocabulary used by teachers or classmates. He has many friends at school and stays in touch with his friends back in Kenya. Photo: Tiara Fernandes

Veronica Gallardo, the director of English Language Learner (ELL) and International Programs feels that the ELL co-teaching method is beneficial for students. She feels that family support is key to a student’s success. Community outreach is her favorite part of her job because she gets to go out to various communities and meet students, parents, and families. Photo: Celina Kareiva

Wendy Chapman knows what it’s like to live in a new country. She taught elementary school in Australia when she was 24 years old. She also spent 10 years in Spain where she forced herself to learn and speak Spanish. When she came back to Seattle she missed teaching and learning about other cultures so she decided to get involved again becoming a teacher of the ELL program at Hamilton International Middle School. Photo: Tiara Fernandes

“If [teachers] are not intentional about helping those students, checking in with them regularly, and…advocating for their students,” Davis said, “then I can see those students being forgotten in the classroom, or left behind.”

He believes that an integrated classroom can be successful if the ELL program is properly staffed and additional support is provided at home. Shwe and Zin Mar Myo Oo are originally from Burma and are both students in Davis’ sixth grade class. Their father moved from South Seattle—where there is a large immigrant community—to the U-District, so they could attend Hamilton and learn English. The girls speak their native tongue at home but sometimes find it difficult to strike a balance between their school identities and their family lives. “It’s a lot different because in here, it’s not our language. So it’s kind of hard to speak to other students,” said Shwe. Despite the sacrifices Shwe and her family have already made in moving to Seattle, next year’s changes to the bus system may make it even more difficult for ELL students to attend Hamilton. Those not enrolled in their assigned neighborhood schools will be required to provide their own transportation. “Our boundary being this area,” Davis said, “we’re seeing less and less of [these ELL students] than we’ve ever seen before.”

Because Wallingford has a small bilingual population, Hamilton will likely see enrollment in its ELL program drop further in coming years. Already, several other schools in the north end have begun grandfathering out their ELL programs in anticipation of the shift in demographics.

Chapman fears these changes may kill a crucial link to immigrant refugee populations. She explained that ELL programs are more than just language classrooms; they provide a connection to Seattle’s growing immigrant and refugee populations. Instructors provide counseling on assimilation, build confidence, and sometimes help families access other services in the community.

“Along with coming from another country, and having language issues, these people come from [countries at war] and they have those issues to deal with,” Chapman said of her students, some of whom are the only ones in their immediate family who speak English. “…A lot of [these kids], they’re the spokesperson for their families.”

Chapman says cultural clashes are inevitable. But she reasons that immersing them develops mainstream students’ empathy and understanding for their bilingual peers.

“That’s been one of the negative sides of having self-contained ESL classes, that the [kids] are perceived as a little different and they don’t often [interact] with the other kids,” she said. “[Now], as their English improves, they [have] had a chance to mingle more.”

Chapman is uncertain how she will fit into the future of English Language Learner programs in Seattle public schools. But as Hamilton continues to evolve its bilingual teaching methods, one thing sustains her.

“When the bell rings, I think, ‘who would care if I even showed up for work?’ In the building, hardly anyone, but there are 30 children who depend on me and that’s what does keep me going. It’s those 30 children who tell me ‘oh I’m failing math,’ or ‘I need your help’…I know I’m doing a good job. The kids coming back validates that fact.”

Seattle Public Schools Makes Over Bilingual Program (video)

English Language Learner Programs in the Seattle Public Schools (map)

View English Language Learner Programs in the Seattle Public Schools in a larger map

Produced by students in the University of Washington’s Entrepreneurial Journalism Practicum course.

Read previous stories from the Student Projects:

Crime Prevention Officers Face Budget Axe, The Homeless Neighbor, Buckaroo Tavern Pours Last Drink, Recession Sparks Entrepreneurialism in Ballard, The Missing Link and Lights Out, Computer On

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