December 14, 2018 Media

Launching English for Newcomers at Ward Elementary

Karen Anderson is now serving in her eighth year as principal of Chicago’s James Ward Elementary School, but she has been a valued member of the school’s community since beginning there as a fourth grade teacher in 1996. In her 20-plus years at Ward, Karen has “evolved as an instructional leader and educator” while enjoying a front row seat to many transformations in education. Among the most remarkable changes is one she spearheaded herself: the development of an English language instruction program designed specifically for newcomers.

Karen identifies newcomers as students who are in their first, second or third year of learning the English language at Ward. Looking at years of data, she and her instructional team noticed that students in this category were still struggling in transitional bilingual classrooms. Karen didn’t like the old system of placing newcomers in a separate, isolated class all day long, so she set out to build her own curriculum, which is fully integrated into Ward’s offerings for the first time during the 2018-19 school year.

The “newcomer program” is based on “starting where (students) are and not expecting them to be on standard and to be on grade level right away,” Karen explained. It isn’t realistic to expect kids who are only just beginning to learn English to be at the same level as their peers who are native speakers, she notes.

The new curriculum has come with challenges. Karen had to reallocate teachers, shifting those who are truly bilingual to the new program and moving others with ELL certifications to Ward’s pre-existing transitional bilingual classrooms. She and her team have even developed their own benchmarks and built new assessments for newcomers. “What we’re discovering,” Karen explained, “is they’re making growth faster because we are meeting them where they are, and we’re individualizing their learning a little bit more.”

To build a quality curriculum for newcomers, Karen intentionally involved all parties. “Scores can’t tell you what a teacher can tell you,” she said. Yet, the most interested group may have been the parents. Throughout the process, Karen sought out the parents’ advice and held orientations to help families understand the new system. They share her vision for a multicultural school where the whole world is represented and students “embrace each other and understand there’s more alike than different about us.”

Parents are also leading the charge for what may be the next big addition to Ward’s curriculum. It is already a World Language School with a program in Spanish, but some parents are pushing for the inclusion of their native Mandarin. Karen sees this as a logical next step and shares the goal of producing trilingual students. She hopes to expand this program so “kids can choose at kindergarten which language they want to learn” and study it all the way through eighth grade.

Moving in this direction will only add to the multicultural atmosphere at Ward. Karen’s ultimate goal is to see her students “embrace diversity” and she is excited to continue growing alongside them.