Above, State Superintendent Tom Torlakson and policy adviser Briana Mullen chat with English-language students at Union Avenue Elementary School.

State Superintendent Tom Torlakson and Principal Veronica Herrera observe English-language development classes at Union Avenue Elementary.
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State Superintendent Tom Torlakson and Principal Veronica Herrera observe English-language development classes at Union Avenue Elementary.

Seeking successful strategies that could help improve outcomes for English-learners in California’s public schools, State Superintendent Tom Torlakson visited classrooms this week at Union Avenue Elementary, where he got a first-hand look at one of L.A. Unified’s most effective language-development programs.

Torlakson and educators statewide are focused on identifying the best practices for “reclassifying” English-learners as proficient in their adopted language. Reclassified students outperformed English-learners on Smarter Balanced Assessments released earlier this week, underscoring the urgency to teach the students to listen, speak, read and write in English.

“Such a large portion of students in California are English-learners, and it’s critical that we help them become proficient as quickly as possible because it is linked to academic success,” said Torlakson, who has created a task force focused on supporting the state’s 1.3 million English-learners.

It was the success of Union Avenue in reclassifying its students that drew Torlakson to the Westlake campus, where he observed English-language development lessons in a dozen of its classrooms.

In one classroom, he watched as teacher Sara Plazola taught kindergartners to process information and express their ideas. At other stops, he listened to older students practice their conversational skills, and rewarded others with a “Great job!” for their use of complex language.

Along the way, Torlakson got a crash course in English-language development strategies from Union Avenue Principal Veronica Herrera, who grew up in the neighborhood and tutored at the campus while attending Belmont High School.

“We use a multi-tiered program to meet the individual needs of our students, and we also take a multi-tiered approach to providing professional development for our teachers,” Herrera told him. “How we prepare our teachers is personalized to student needs.”

Teacher Arlene Payes works with first-graders on their reading skills,
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Teacher Arlene Payes works with first-graders on their reading skills.

Key to the school’s success, she said, is regular monitoring of student data and daily visits to the classrooms. By watching teachers and students in in action, Herrera said, she and her team offer suggestions and strategies to support the learning process.

“When we go into the classroom we have a clear picture of what to look for in helping our English-learners,” she said.

Union Avenue is one of the District’s largest elementary schools, with approximately 1,300 students. More than half – about 700 – of them are English-learners. Under Herrera’s leadership, the school’s reclassification rate has increased over the last three years, from 13 to 20 percent, while the rate in L.A. Unified has dipped to about 12 percent.

Union Avenue also gained an average of 5 percentage points on this year’s Smarter Balanced Assessments, with 36 percent of students meeting or exceeding standards in English-language arts and 26 percent hitting that mark in Math.

Those scores were accomplished by integrating strategies used during the English-language development period throughout the school day – a program known formally as structured English immersion.

Teacher Sara Plazola encourages her kindergartners to use their imaginations to create new ideas.
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Teacher Sara Plazola encourages her kindergartners to use their imaginations to create new ideas.

L.A. Unified also offers dual-language immersion programs at several schools, offering students academic and language-development lessons in their primary language, as well as English.

According to Hilda Maldonado, executive director of the District’s Multilingual and Multicultural Education, students who learn to read in their primary language perform better when learning subjects in an adopted language.

Concluding his visit, Torlakson expressed interest in partnering with the District in developing and replicating more programs programs.

“I’ve heard some very good ideas here to take to another level,” he said.