Can schools close ‘achievement gap?’ |

Can schools close ‘achievement gap?’

Matt Terrell
Vail, CO Colorado

EAGLE COUNTY ” After two weeks in Costa Rica speaking nothing but Spanish, Lauren Glesenkamp feels confident going into her second year teaching first grade at Avon Elementary.

At a school where 75 percent of the students know very little English ” and their parents even less ” teaching English is the goal, but speaking Spanish makes the connections. It turns on those little lights in a child’s brain and comforts intimidated parents.

Glesenkamp kept that in mind during her intensive Spanish immersion program in Costa Rica, where she took classes and lived with two families who spoke nothing but Spanish.

Now, she knows she can make better connections with her students and their parents.

“It’s one thing to have a translator in the room during a conference, but it’s another when you can say things in your own words ” they feel comfortable talking to you,” she said.

Improving their own Spanish skills is one way teachers are reaching out to Hispanic students, who are often struggling to catch up with their English-speaking peers.

Educators call this disparity the “achievement gap,” and it’s one of those daunting problems that gets bigger every year as more Hispanic families move into the county.

It’s a dilemma that shows itself publicly around test time, when people see how poorly students perform when they can barely read the questions on a test.

Here’s a look at some of the practical ways the school district is trying to shrink the achievement gap.

About half the teachers at Avon Elementary speak Spanish, which is a valuable tool in teaching students English, said principal Melisa Rewold-Thuon. Most of these teachers are taking personal initiative to improve their Spanish skills.

“You can teach ESL without knowing Spanish, but it’s much easier when you understand their first language,” Rewold-Thuon said. “School district staff can take one free class at CMC each semester, and a lot of them elect to take the Spanish classes.”

Knowing Spanish opens up so many doors for teachers ” it helps them notice mistakes students make and helps them communicate. And actually, strengthening a student’s Spanish skills will actually help them with their English.

“Learning a second language is most effective when a student has a strong foundation in their first language,” said Heidi Hanssen, principal at Edwards Elementary. “And 80 percent of the skills learned in native language instruction transfer to the second language.”

That basically means if a student learns to write well in Spanish, they’ll likely become a good writer in English.

Also, the younger a child is, the better chance teachers have in making an impact.

That’s why we’re seeing an increased focus on reaching out to students between kindergarten and third grade.

For instance, kindergartners at Avon Elementary who were struggling with English last school year started two weeks early as first-graders this year.

It’s called the Jump Start program, and the idea is to get students caught up and on grade level before all the other kids start school. About eight students attended this year’s trial run, and Rewold-Thuon said she could tell it made a difference in those students.

The school is also expanding its after school reading programs to include the younger students.

“The goal is that they will be reading on English grade level by the third, or at least the fifth grade,” Rewold-Thuon said.

Spanish skills not only help in the classroom, they can help reaching out to parents. Teachers say parental involvement is integral to a child’s success in school, and when a teacher can make connections with parents, it can make a big difference.

“It’s a very important relationship,” Glesenkamp said. “I want them to know that they can talk to me if they need to, they need to know that I’m making an effort and we’re working together.”

Both Avon and Edwards elementaries have Spanish-speaking parent liaisons to help communicate with families who know little or no English. Most school events, like an upcoming ice cream social at Avon Elementary, are held in both English and Spanish. At Edwards Elementary, all parents are asked to volunteer one hour a month or a total of nine hours a year.

“Last year when this was the first year of the program we had 25 percent of our parents that reached this goal. Many of these parents that met this goal were Spanish-speaking parents,” Hanssen said.

It also helps when parents are trying to learn English themselves. Many local parents are learning English through Colorado Mountain College, and if students watch their parents work hard at learning English, they’ll probably work hard as well, said Marie Rita, a second language teacher at Eagle Valley High School.

“There’s a level of dedication you can see in the students who have parents struggling to learn English,” Rita said. “You can see those results in school.”

Teachers from Avon Elementary knocked on doors of several students this summer, catching them in their pajamas or even still asleep at home. They just wanted to say “hi,” but parents ratted them out, telling the teachers they weren’t reading this summer like they were supposed to.

“No matter how much we try to encourage kids to read over the summer, without a structured environment like summer school, they don’t do it,” Rewold-Thuon said.

Summer is a critical time for the hundreds of Eagle County students who are struggling to learn English, and soon, teachers will be seeing how far students fell behind.

Unless they sign up for summer school, they say goodbye to their teachers, lessons and textbooks. It becomes easy to drift away from reading and writing every day. They’re spending more time at home with their families, where Spanish may be the only language spoken and heard.

English can easily take a back seat for three months, and it shows when they come back to school in the fall. Teachers then spend a lot of time reteaching what was lost during the summer.

That’s why its imperative that students read as much as they can, take summer classes, go to the library, keep journals and even join sports teams, where they’ll speak English with friends and coaches.

That’s why teachers were knocking on doors in Avon, and that’s why volunteers at Edwards Elementary were calling families this summer, reminding them to keep up with reading and writing.

While the number of students who need summer school far outnumber those who actually attend, more students than ever signed up this year.

When kids actually do all these things, teachers definitely notice a difference, Rewold-Thuon said. They may not improve over the summer, but at least they don’t fall way behind like many students do.

If they did fall behind, teachers will soon find out.

“Our first two days of school are testing days,” Hanssen said. “Each students’ reading level is assessed so that teachers can start instruction on day one at the appropriate level for all students.”

Staff writer Matt Terrell can be reached at 748-2955 or

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