Personalizing the Extended School Year Experience

In this district, ELL and special education students aren’t just maintaining their literacy skills over the summer—they’re improving them.

By Katie Gutowski

Perched on the threshold of summer, most K-12 classes are coming to a close as we begin preparing for the extended school year (ESY) and summer school programs to begin. ESYs are commonly used to address the needs of students with learning disabilities, to prevent the notorious “summer slide,” and to preserve the academic skills students have acquired over the school year. At Colonial School District in Delaware, we’ve utilized an ESY for several years, but it was only recently that we decided to give our program a personalized upgrade.

As the current English Language Arts (ELA) and English language learner (ELL) specialist for Colonial, it’s my responsibility to oversee our curriculum in Colonial. Literacy is my top priority. It’s also frequently the primary focus for ESY programs: to ensure that our students don’t lose their reading skills over the summer and continue to work toward their IEP goals. So, when I was promoted from a building literacy coach to a district literary coach positions, I was included on the ESY plans we had in place and thought, “How can we increase the academic achievement of ESY?”

I started in education 14 years ago as a first-grade teacher, and fell in love with literacy. Teaching kids to read, unlocking the mysteries of English—I loved the whole process. From the start of my career at Colonial I have been a reading specialist, working with some of our most challenging students in kindergarten through fifth grade. These were the same kids who would later become the focus for our ESY programs: students who struggle to meet grade-level standards in reading and language arts, non-native speakers, and children who required individualized education plans (IEPs).

These children all shared the same need for continued assistance with literacy over the summer, but came from such different backgrounds and had such different reasons for needing this assistance that it became very clear that we weren’t giving our students the individualized instruction they required. Our district was experiencing a complete shift in our approach to how we classify and instruct our students, and the Colonial Extended School Year was a wonderful place to implement these new, personalized practices.

Teaching at School and at Home

When serving our non-readers and special education students who were struggling the most with their reading, we looked first at their IEPs and tried to best match them with groups of kids who shared their level of required instructional assistance. Then we used an online reading instruction and intervention program from Reading Horizons to help them continue their practice and application at home.

A lot of our kids experience that summer slide, especially those with special needs, so combining our group work in class with independent efforts at home within the ESY approach allows us to support our students with the most engaging instruction we can.

Changing How We Categorize Our Students

We also needed to give our students the unique guidance their circumstances required without confining them to strict homogeneous groups. By grouping all our children together under one approach to instruction, we were limiting the possibilities for helping each child learn and improve. The mistake of this initial method was believing that an equal approach would produce equal results. When implementing our ESY, we wanted that level of equality when it came to our student’s literacy success, but realized that in order to get our students there, we needed to provide them with personalized paths.

Now we take a more holistic view. We look at reading skills, level of English proficiency, speech issues, etc., and consider that student as a whole. Then we ask, “What type of instruction will best meet the needs of this child?” When it comes to our special education and ELL students, for example we use Reading Horizon’s Discovery® software to introduce them to the decoding rules and provide them with the tools and support they need to learn quickly and effectively. Providing the right approach through a variety of resources works just as well for our other groups of students.

Reclassifying ELLs

One of the priorities for Colonial’s re-categorizing efforts is reducing the amount of time that students remain classified as ELL. We want to make sure that our students are receiving appropriate instruction in speaking, listening, reading, and writing so they reach proficiency. Because of ESSA, the cut score is changing, so it’s more difficult to reclassify students than it was before. We’re working hard to understand the new system with the goal of achieving the same levels of progress we initially conceived.

In order to assist our teachers in fully understanding the needs of ELL students and what their instructional needs are, we’re providing additional training. It can be very challenging for a classroom teacher who doesn’t have the tools to best support their ELL students, so we want to ensure that they recognize these needs and have the tools to address them. When ELL programs aren’t effective, students tend to remain for longer periods and are less likely to be successful.

Overall Shift Toward Personalized Learning

We continue to focus on making sure our students are reading so we build in enough time within their reading block during the school year and also in our ESY. We train our teachers on effective instructional methods, options for independent practice, and application. We’re always adapting our approach to personalized learning and ESY—this year we were better than we were last year and we hope to improve even more this summer. As we learn what works for certain individuals and groups, we will further refine our practice to ensure that our students benefit from the additional instruction and support that is available during the summer months.

Katie Gutowski is an ELA and ELL Specialist at Colonial School District in New Castle, Delaware. She received her Masters in Reading at Wilmington College and her B.A in Elementary Education at King’s College.

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