H. A. Rehm
Going into TESOL can be intimidating. Many ESL teachers have limited resources, or struggle with a lack of support. Ed Kennedy of South-Western City Schools offers hope: evidence of how his district was transformed through teaching methods designed for English learners.
Kennedy is the Coordinator of ESL Services for South-Western City Schools. This district is the 6th largest in the state in overall population, and about 15% of the students are English learners. SWCS have the most comprehensive ESL program in the state, with the highest number of SIOP-trained teachers (over 600, at the elementary, middle, and high school level), and further support is given through bilingual assistants and interpreters.
Kennedy started out as a social studies teacher in the middle school. There was no comprehensive ESL program at the time, but he spoke enough Spanish to support some of the English learners in his classes. Teachers began consulting him with questions about ESL and English learners. In order to address the needs of ELs, then-Coordinator of ESL Services Rene Phillips visited a school district in Oregon that had been using the SIOP model (Sheltered Instruction Observation Protocol). She brought the idea back to her district, and, at her suggestion, Kennedy and 13 other teachers took the SIOP training. SIOP gave Kennedy a way to include ELs in the regular classroom curriculum, and ensure that they were acquiring both content knowledge and the language necessary to demonstrate it. He shared his results with other teachers, and helped implement it in the other buildings. Phillips ensured that the teachers had adequate funding and support, making it possible for more of them to get SIOP-trained and to expand the model to the entire district.
In implementing SIOP, Kennedy’s idea was simple: “If we find a place for our students to belong, good numbers [attendance, test scores] will go up, and bad numbers [absenteeism, disciplinary measures] will go down.” His focus was to make the school that place, to “connect the kids to the building.” Flags of the students’ home countries were hung in the schools and incorporated into classroom exercises. Not only did students perform better academically, within 6 months of implementing SIOP, the cafeteria showed evidence of greater interaction. Somali students could be seen sitting with white and Hispanic students; native and nonnative speakers of English began sharing tables. Breaking down the divisions of linguistic background allowed students to interact socially as well as academically. This breakdown of the “us vs. them” mentality among students led to a similar change among parents.
Other districts noticed the upswing in ‘good’ numbers at SWCS, and began consulting them. The positive changes are visible, and this encouraging news is important to TESOL students and new teachers. To this group, Kennedy offers further encouragement: “Don’t let anyone tell you that your words have less value because you’re new.”