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 Pilot Program Helps La Mesa-Spring Valley School District Students "Breakthrough"

A program piloted by the La Mesa-Spring Valley School District over the summer has given students new to the United States a jump start on learning. After just one month in the immersion program, students gained an average half-year of growth in reading and math. 

The students enrolled in the summer school came from families of limited means and diverse origins. There were 10 home languages spoken and 19 home countries represented. 

It’s a remarkable accomplishment for the many refugee students starting their lives in America after being forced to flee their homelands because of strife. 

The “Breakthrough English” program targeted English Learners who have been attending public school here for a year or less. Seventy-five students in kindergarten through 8th grade took part in the program designed to help them improve oral language, listening, vocabulary, beginning reading, writing, and basic math skills. 

“We realized our classrooms had an increase in newcomers that presented some challenges for our teachers,” said Elisa Holston-Arteaga, director of Instruction and Curriculum and English Learner Services. “Many appeared to be refugees and had literacy skills in their home language that varied.” 

Some of the students were children who had lived their entire lives in refugee camps. For them, the newcomer’s academy was more than a path to building English skills. It was also a way to simply learn how to go to school. By the end of the program, students had gained the ability to problem solve for themselves, feel comfortable asking questions, and follow routines. 

But the program also provided an important social aspect. Because of their diverse cultural backgrounds and experiences, the summer school offered the children a unique opportunity to get to know each other and start the school year having already made new friends 

Assessments taken before the four-week academy started showed students had an average reading level of a kindergartener. Tests administered following the intensive English immersion program showed students had an average reading level that had improved to early first grade level — or an average half-year of growth. 

All the students improved in reading an average of 1.4 reading levels on the literacy assessment, and 24 students improved at least two levels in reading.

Math growth saw similar results. Exit data showed 35 students — or 46 percent — demonstrated a half-year or more of growth in the subject. 

Guido Magliato, assistant superintendent of Learning Support, called the gains significant. 

“We were really pleased with the growth,” he said. “And the students were so proud of their progress.” 

Each four-hour session was packed with instruction. Participants practiced reading in small group settings, were given English as a Second Language instruction, and also used computers to log on to “Imagine Learning,” an online language and literacy program designed specifically for English Learners. 

“Breakthrough English,” which was held from June 26 to July 21 at Spring Valley Academy, was funded with Title III federal funding. It is part of the district’s Local Control Accountability Plan, which focuses on the needs of English Learners, low-income students, and foster youth. 

The program was provided free to participants, and included bus transportation and lunch each day. 

The La Mesa-Spring Valley School District serves more than 12,000 students in kindergarten through eighth grade at 17 elementary schools, three specialized academies and a middle school. It has a total budget of $124 million for the 2017-18 school year.