The ELL Field Guide for Common Core Success

By Cameron Pipkin

I don’t make a habit of talking about work on the Common Core Blog, but a case study came across my desk yesterday that I felt I had to share, especially with those of my readers who work in high-percentage ELL districts.

Rialto California Case StudyThe case study goes over the great work being done in Rialto Unified School District—a district with a student population of nearly 30% ELL—to refine the implementation of the Common Core Standards. Rialto USD worked with the folks at School Improvement Network (the company I work for) to better align its instructional practices with the Standards. Now, district leaders easily can identify and close key gaps in instruction, leading to greater student success.

You’ll see the full case study posted below. I’ve included a link to download the PDF at the bottom of the page.


“We knew we had one shot to get it right”

Preparing educators and students to meet the more rigorous demands of the Common Core is a tall task for any school system—but in Rialto, California, where more than half the city’s population is Hispanic and about 27 percent of the school district’s 26,500 students are English language learners, it’s even more so.

The Common Core State Standards call for students to analyze complex texts, make arguments based on evidence they find in the text, and discuss their mathematical thinking, among other activities. These skills require a familiarity with academic English that can challenge any student—but especially someone who is still learning the language.

As the Rialto Unified School District readied for the shift to the Common Core, administrators at the district’s 28 schools began working with teachers to articulate the changes they wanted to see from instruction.

“We were doing classroom observations every week, but we weren’t talking the same language,” said Beth Curtis, Executive Director of Elementary Instruction. “We needed alignment across the district to ensure that we were looking for the same practices.”

For help in creating a common framework, Rialto USD turned to School Improvement Network, a professional learning provider for educators.

School Improvement Network aided district leaders in identifying high-impact instructional strategies that would prepare students effectively for the rigor of the Common Core. The company also helped show Rialto’s teachers how to implement these strategies, and district leaders are using School Improvement Network’s software to understand the strengths, and gaps, in teachers’ instruction so they know where to focus their professional learning efforts.

Rialto’s partnership with School Improvement Network has “really helped us to focus on the activities that will have the biggest impact across the district,” Curtis said.

Boot camp

To begin the alignment process, district leaders gathered at the School Improvement Network headquarters in Midvale, Utah, for a two-day leadership “boot camp.” During this session, they explored their vision and goals for the district, and they created a framework for the instructional strategies they would focus on to achieve Common Core success.

“We would highly recommend the boot camp to other districts,” Curtis said. “It was very useful and we got a lot of ideas.”

Working with School Improvement Network specialists, Rialto USD leaders decided they would focus on core strategies such as close and critical reading, accountable talk, and sentence frames in the elementary grades.

Sentence frames give students a framework to explain their thinking, while also exposing them to content vocabulary and providing language support for English language learners. Accountable talk is a learning strategy in which students ask one another about their thinking and build on the responses of others. They cite evidence, ask for clarification, and use the statements they have heard from their classmates to form new ideas.

Once district leaders agreed on the instructional strategies they wanted to focus on, they mapped out an observation framework that principals could use throughout the district. Their framework addresses six key areas: planning, reading, writing, speaking and listening, math, and the classroom environment.

Within each of these areas, district leaders identified the “look-fors” they should see in each classroom. For instance, are students reading a wide variety of texts? Are they supporting their claims with evidence from the text? Are they writing across the curriculum? Are they learning multiple ways to solve math problems?

Professional development

With a common observation framework in place, Rialto USD built its professional development around these strategies and look-fors.

“We’re very lucky that we have a dedicated training center for staff professional development in Rialto,” Curtis said. Teachers attended grade-level training in person at the district’s Professional Development Center, while substitute teachers covered their classes. During this training, they learned how to use key strategies for supporting the Common Core.

This in-person training was supplemented by 24/7 access to Edivate, School Improvement Network’s extensive online library of videos, lesson plans, and other resources for implementing the Common Core into instruction.

With Edivate, Rialto teachers had access to more than 400 Common Core instructional videos, more than 200 lesson guides aligned with the standards, and a network of hundreds of thousands of educators across the country with whom they could ask questions, share ideas, and exchange lesson plans.

Vince Rollins, the principal at Curtis Elementary School in Rialto, kicked off the school year by modeling Edivate’s video library with his staff. Rollins showed specific video clips to teachers during staff meetings and had them break into groups to discuss the strategies shown, and teachers also watched the videos on their own during their free time.

“One teacher has logged six or seven hours of viewing time,” he noted. “She took this resource and ran with it.”

The videos have served as a “springboard” into more in-depth, collegial discussions about improving teaching practices, Rollins added—and this has helped transform teaching and learning.

Observation 360

Tying all of this together and driving real instructional change in Rialto has been School Improvement Network’s classroom observation tool, Observation 360.

Principals and other instructional leaders use this powerful online platform to record their observations and then analyze this information, looking for areas that need improvement. Classroom walkthrough data can be linked to student achievement outcomes, so district leaders can see what teachers are doing well and where they need more focus.

“We love that we can get a quick dipstick reading to see: Are we making shifts? To what level?” Curtis said. “It helps us plan our next steps as a district.”

For instance, looking at the data revealed that students in Rialto had access to a variety of texts—but they weren’t going deep enough in their analysis of these materials. “That was a big ‘aha’ for us,” Curtis said, and it will be a topic reserved for additional teacher training.

If Rialto USD did not have access to Observation 360, “then everything would just be a feeling,” Curtis added. “Instead, we have a true indication of how our professional development is going and how well our sites are shifting their practices to meet the Common Core.”

Referring to the district’s transition to the new standards, she concluded: “We knew we had one shot to get it right. School Improvement Network has helped with that.”

To download a PDF version of this case study click here.

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