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 Continuous Improvement Institute Transforms Teaching for Southwest High English Learners

At Southwest High School in the Sweetwater Union High School District, Vice Principal Aaron Magnan says students who are English learners were struggling academically, especially long-term English learners.

“Sixty-eight percent of our long-term English learners were failing their first semester English class,” he explained. “It’s not to say that our teachers weren’t working hard.”

The school was using research-based programs. Teachers were putting in 10- to 15-hour days. “We had extra tutoring programs, interventions, phone calls home, and parent meetings, but eventually we were still finding the same results, and we knew something was missing.”

That’s where the San Diego County Office of Education (SDCOE) came in. SDCOE’s Continuous Improvement Institute is a year-long journey that develops knowledge and skills in leaders for improving programs and services that affect student learning. Instead of spending weeks or months planning and implementing a comprehensive change, only to find that it is fundamentally flawed, the improvement process enables rapid testing of and learning from small scale changes, thereby producing conditions that accelerate school improvement.

The Institute made a big difference for the school, Magnan said.

“Oftentimes, we’d find ourselves in a situation where we would create the biggest possible program and hopefully manage it well enough to keep something afloat,” he said. “But we didn’t know what that something was, and the data wasn’t proving that that was necessarily working. So, starting small and scaling up, I think, was the most viable option. And that’s what was proven to us through this Institute.”

Program Evaluation Coordinators Todd Langager and Dr. Shannon Coulter led the institute, serving as improvement coaches. They visit participating schools regularly, walking classrooms and giving immediate feedback throughout the entire process.

“Their time with us was invaluable,” said Magnan. “We started observing students, really trying to empathize with them. We would sit there for an entire hour and study one student, each person, and take down notes on their behavior and what we were noticing.

“What we started realizing is that a lot of our long-term English learners, while out in their lunch area would be hanging out with their friends, they would be normal adolescents, laughing. But in the classroom, they hesitated to participate, and many of them wouldn’t participate at all. You could see some of them go an entire day without mentioning a word or writing anything down. We kind of felt like we had new eyes on the problem.”

The Institute taught the Southwest High team how to use a “plan, do, study, act” cycle. The team planned and tested multiple strategies before teachers tried them out. This is the “do” of the cycle.

“We studied the results and we acted upon those observations in the studies to improve,” said Magnan. “Ultimately we learned that our students were not disengaged, they just needed more time to think and process language before producing results. We also learned that we needed to protect their ‘think times,’ giving them specific amounts of time to think before they were expected to produce an answer.”

Using their observations, the Southwest High team implemented a “think-write-talk-write” approach with a small group of pilot teachers to give students a chance to produce an answer that was academically sound and well thought out.

The results were impressive.

“We saw a greater amount of participation from our long-term English learners, but also higher-quality responses,” said Magnan. “In the end, we were very excited to find that we had reduced the ‘F’ rate in long-term English learners in their first semester English class from 68 percent to 27 percent.”

Schools and districts participating in the Continuous Improvement Institute benefit from a preparatory consultation, five face-to-face workshops, and 12 monthly onsite or virtual coaching sessions. The face-to-face sessions combine lectures with interactive exercises that support key concepts and tools, so that participants immediately apply what they have learned to their own improvement project. The onsite coaching focuses on building participants’ capacity to carry out improvement work independently.

The process worked for Southwest High School.

“We really learned how to observe what works and what doesn’t work, and on top of that, how to do the right things more often and better,” Magnan said. “As you can see in our results, the students were the ones who really benefited from this. And future students will, too, because now our teachers and our administrative staff have tools to continue this kind of improvement.”