As I prepare to leave Manassas City Public Schools, I would like to share a leadership challenge my staff at Weems Elementary School successfully met. I share this accomplishment to remind us that leadership can make a difference for the children we serve. This fact often is forgotten during the day to day grind of our jobs, especially in the era of accountability.
When I arrived at Weems three year ago, Weems no longer had a majority ethnic group. This change in its community’s ethnic demographics occurred within the last five years. The overall student population had only increased by 40 students since the sixth-grade was removed in the fall of 2000. The Hispanic subgroup had become the largest ethnic group at Weems Elementary School. The Hispanic population increased by 367% in the prior five years. The number of Hispanic has increased from 81 students or 11.3 % of the student population on September 30, 1999 school year to 290 students or 43.6 % of the student population on September 30, 2004.
An additional issue was that many of these Hispanic students did not speak English at home. This fact increased the number of ESL students and the need for ESL services. The number of children from non-English speaking families increased from 144 total students or 22.3% of the student population in the 2001-2002 school year to 316 total student or 46.4% of the student population in the 2004-2005 school year. Teachers often cited frustration and concern with decreased home/school communication due to this language barrier. Some staff also shared concerns that staff members were not comfortable with the new cultural diversity within the building and spoke of these children in derogatory terms. Other staff cited the need for more instructional space for the increased ESL staff and Title I teachers as another issue due to these changes. The demographic change was cited by 65% of the Weems staff as the greatest challenge facing the school.
One strategy to address these issues was an ESOL Summer School Academy for all beginning level ESOL students. In the past, no district school provided a summer program specifically designed for these students. After consultation with the District’s ESOL Coordinator we changed the Weems summer school program to include a program designed by the ESOL Coordinator to address the needs of VDOE level 1 and level 2 ESOL students at Weems. This program focused on learning experiences that built literacy skills through the use of content area materials.
Weems selected ESOL students to participate based upon end of the year ESOL levels, PALS scores and DRA scores. We contacted parents by means of translated letters and phone calls in their native language to invite them to participate in these 20 additional days of instruction. Over 120 ESOL students enrolled in the ESOL Summer School Academy, an increase of more than 100 students from the previous year.
We selected materials that supported the Virginia SOLs, as well as the Virginia English Language Proficiency standards, and she, then, designed a curriculum based upon these materials. I, subsequently, recruited the additional teachers necessary to deliver this instructional program. Title I funds were used to pay for this additional summer school staff. Since many of the hired teachers were not ESOL teachers, the ESOL coordinator provided staff development for these teachers that centered on effective ESOL strategies based on research and experience.
Weems assessed these students’ progress in learning English by means of a pre and post PALS test. Many ESOL students made significant measurable progress. We were very pleased with the overall results. In fact, Manassas City has continued to offer our program on a district wide basis every summer since.