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West Jordan Journal

Increase of ESL-endorsed teachers earns big rewards for West Jordan schools

May 20, 2021 10:48AM ● By Jet Burnham

Joel P. Jensen Middle School has one of the most diverse student bodies in Utah. (Bryan Leggat/JPJMS)

By Jet Burnham | [email protected]

Joel P. Jensen Middle is the 24th most diverse of Utah’s 250 middle schools, with 16% of its student body identified as English Language Learners.

This comes with a lot of challenges, said Principal Bryan Leggat, but he and his staff have found ways to best serve these students, earning the distinction of Notable Middle School by the Utah State Board of Education.

“In some ways, we've become successful out of necessity,” language arts teacher Emily Kershaw said. “We have so much diversity and range of languages and language skills represented in our school that we have to find ways to help them. Our ELL students have a lot of options for help, and they know that they have a lot of support from the adults in the school.”

Students who arrive from other countries and haven’t learned English are placed in language development classes and receive support from ESL aides. Additionally, several core class teachers have chosen to earn an English as a Second Language endorsement to further support these students. Leggat paid the cost of endorsement so more teachers would have a variety of instructional strategies to meet the various language levels of students in their classes.

Because so many teachers from the West Jordan feeder system (Joel P, West Jordan Middle, West Jordan High) applied for the endorsement program last year, they formed their own cohort to complete six graduate-level classes in nine months.

Kershaw, who was part of the cohort, said she learned how to build students’ language skills while helping them to understand class content.

“I've learned more about differentiating materials for different levels of ability to help each of my students be successful, wherever they're at,” she said. “I've also stopped to think about how I say things in speaking and writing and adapt it to be more straightforward.”

Alexandra Post, another language arts teacher at JPJMS, earned her endorsement in 2018.

“I learned that translating everything does not help them learn; I had to really scaffold my lessons and add in supports for my students,” she said. “I was in my first year of teaching still, and these methods not only helped me teach ELLs better but all of my students.”

Because JPJMS has more ESL-endorsed teachers meeting ELL students’ needs, the students’ proficiency rates have increased. Fifty percent of the school’s ELL students made adequate or proficient progress last year (up 9% from the previous year), a rate which is higher than state and district averages.

Leggat credits much of the school’s success to Spanish teacher Laura Halverson.

“Her best quality when it comes to working with our English Language Learners is she just loves them and cares about them, and they can tell that, and so they're very comfortable working with her,” he said.

Halverson is an instructional coach for teachers and a cheerleader and advocate for ELL students.

“These kids are working twice as hard as our kids that don't have the language issue, and sometimes our mainstream teachers forget that,” Leggat said. “And so she represents these kids when they don't necessarily feel like they have a strong voice to support themselves. She'll go to bat for them and go and talk to the teachers.”

Halverson also supports teachers, suggesting instructional strategies and preparing them to know how to handle new students who may only speak a few words of English.

New ELL students are also paired with a peer who speaks their native language to help them adjust.

“I do give a lot of credit to my students who help support these new students from other countries,” Leggat said. “Coming into a situation where your language is not being spoken and not knowing what to do—to have someone that will speak your language and will communicate with you and let you know, ‘Hey, I've been in your shoes before’—it goes a long way.”

Another factor in the notable progress of ELL students is smaller class sizes, made possible by the West Jordan Feeder Schools Grant.

For the past four years, the Jordan District Board of Education has granted extra funding to West Jordan secondary schools. With this funding, Leggat hired extra staff to reduce the teacher to student ratio of core classes, shrinking some to fewer than 25 students. 

“I think that has been really an important factor, because the teachers have been able to get around to help these ELL students more regularly in their classes,” he said. “If you have a larger class size, it's really difficult to get around to everyone that has the needs.”

The board’s goal with the grant was to boost graduation rates of the schools with the lowest rates.

“We didn't designate how to spend the money; we just said there's extra funding, develop a plan,” Jordan Board President Tracy Miller said. After four years of funding, the board has been pleased with the results: West Jordan High School’s graduation rates rose from 77% to 86%, and both Joel P. Jensen and West Jordan Middle Schools have had a 10% increase in their ninth grade graduation rates.

The West Jordan Feeder Grant expires this year and the board is looking for other ways to continue supporting these schools’ progress.

West Jordan High also received recognition for their ELL students’ progress from USBE with the Utah High School of Excellence for Closing the Opportunity Gap for Utah's Multilingual Learners award.

WJHS has a Bilingual Peer Tutoring program and a Diploma Now class which support their ELL students, which they call multilingual learners. WJHS Principal Jim Birch has paid for 18 teachers and counselors to receive their ESL endorsement plus an additional stipend for their time.

“We've expanded the conversation about how to best serve our bilingual community,” WJHS ELD Lead April Winegar said. “Eight years ago, multilingual students were mentioned once or twice a year in faculty meetings. Now, new teachers receive training at the beginning of the year. Discussions about accommodating for, and learning the background stories of, our Multilingual Learners are happening continually.”

Students at JPJMS will feed into WJHS.

“It's exciting to have them going over there knowing that they will be supported,” Leggat said.