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Program lays foundation for learning English in area schools

John Stroud
Glenwood Springs correspondent
Aspen, CO Colorado
Courtesy Gissela DillowTamara Perez and Layla Satoueva, students in Gissela Dillow's English Language Learner class at Glenwood Elementary School, write about Ted the tadpole.
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GLENWOOD SPRINGS ” As a bilingual teacher speaking English and Spanish, Gissela Dillow was comfortable teaching English Language Learner (ELL) students who had recently arrived from Latin American countries.

But it wasn’t until the Glenwood Springs Elementary School teacher was challenged to teach English to a young immigrant girl from Chechnya that the positive results of a new curriculum, one the school began using on a pilot basis this year, became apparent.

“It put me at the same odds as everyone else in the classroom,” said Dillow of her experience with one of her “newcomer” first graders, named Layla.

“I didn’t have a direct way to speak to her and help her, but the program worked fantastic with her,” she said of the new literacy-based program, called Cornerstone.

In just her first year as an ELL student, Layla moved up two levels.

It’s been a similar story for other students, said Dillow, who teaches first-grade students who are brand new to the country and are just beginning to learn English.

“At the beginning of the year, these kids literally could not speak a word of English,” she said. “Halfway through January, they were already one or two levels above where I was teaching them.”

It’s that kind of testimonial from teachers that prompted the Roaring Fork School District to expand Cornerstone to its other elementary schools in Glenwood Springs, Carbondale and Basalt starting next fall.

Superintendent Judy Haptonstall said district officials had been doing research to find a comprehensive plan for ELL students for two years, when they learned about Cornerstone.

“There is often an assumption that all ELL students learn the same, and that’s not the case,” Haptonstall said. “Cornerstone is very purposeful in assessing where a student is in the learning process and personalizing it for that student.”

The program also fits in with the Closing the Achievement Gap pilot initiative, for which the district was chosen by the state to participate in this year, she said.

According to Glenwood Elementary Principal Sonya Hemmen, 79 percent of the school’s ELL students have made two years’ growth in a single calendar year. That measurement began last school year before Cornerstone was being used, but much of that progress was recorded this year, she said.

Added Assistant Principal Ted Donahue, “One of the challenges with ELL kids is that they have a base in their native language, but they’re unable to make a link between what they know, and what they need to know in learning English. This program gives us a good base to move forward.

“In the classroom we are seeing kids who are very excited and engaged in learning,” he said.

Darleen Osorio, another of the school’s ELL teachers who teaches new students in first through fifth grade, said she likes Cornerstone’s use of both fiction and nonfiction.

“It’s authentic literature that’s content-based, which gives them so much academic knowledge and background,” she said.

District ELL Director Sharon Moya said the Cornerstone approach seems to have proven itself. But that’s not to say the district’s schools will abandon other programs that are successful.

“It is a viable curriculum in addition to what else we have going on in the district,” she said.

The biggest bonus is that it gives the district a common ELL curriculum from kindergarten through high school, she said. The district has already been using Shining Star (now called Keystone), which is the companion program to Cornerstone for middle and high school students.

jstroud@postindependent.com


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