Isolation was the standard policy when Katie Caskey started teaching in the Cherry Creek School District 10 years ago.
When Caskey arrived at Holly Ridge Primary and Holly Hills Elementary (known collectively as the Hollys), her work as an English Language Acquisition Specialist was rooted in separating certain students from the larger population. Caskey was following a policy that was common in school districts across the state and the country – standard practice dictated that students who were working to learn English as a second language do their work away from their peers.
"I would come in and pull groups of kids out to my classroom," said Caskey, one of four on the ELA team at the Hollys. "What we found was happening was that they were missing all of their grade-level content. Maybe their language skills were improving, but they had missed so much. Their teachers were trying to play catch-up; I was trying to play catch-up."
That policy started to change across the Cherry Creek School District about seven years ago, and the Hollys were no exception. Cherry Creek schools slowly but surely started implementing a co-teaching model that saw English-language learners sharing classrooms and class time with the rest of their peers. Specialists like Caskey started working closely with classroom teachers, collaborating on daily lesson plans and broader instruction goals. They offer "scaffolding" to supplement grade-level instruction, instructional touches that range from pictures to individualized vocabulary lessons.
According to Caskey, the shift has paid off.
"We found that kids were (progressing) so much faster, and they weren't missing that content," she recalled. "There was no stigma of, 'I'm pulling you out, you're different.' It's a better model. The students receive more support and they don't ever feel like they're isolated."
Data from across the district is supporting Caskey's claims. The median growth percentile for English language learners in elementary, middle and high schools across Cherry Creek is the highest of the larger school districts in the state, according to data from the most recent English language proficiency assessments. Specifically, 78 percent of schools in the district showed median growth percentiles of 55 or greater for English language students; 18 schools were in the top two tiers of growth. All elementary schools met or exceeded their adequate growth percentile.
The median growth percentile for English language learners in elementary, middle and high schools across Cherry Creek is the highest of the larger school districts in the state, according to data from the most recent English language proficiency assessments.
Such results who the effectiveness of the approach. The philosophy of co-teaching, collaboration and inclusion is now the norm at Cherry Creek.
"We've had two goals that we've really been working on. One is to make sure that all English language learners have access to grade level content. Number two is providing explicit language development within the content areas," said Dr. Holly Porter, director of English Language Acquisition for the district. "We do that through co-teaching."
Other districts are taking notice of the shift in policy. According to Porter, administrators from across the state and across the country have formally looked into the logic behind Cherry Creek's success. District leaders from other states have asked Cherry Creek officials to visit and detail their programs at formal conferences.
What's more, education officials at the state level have formally recognized Cherry Creek's strides. In February, the district received the Colorado Department of Education's English Language Proficiency Act Excellence District Award. The honor carried a grant of more than $95,000, money that will go toward resources and materials that support the district's co-teaching curriculum.
Porter says the response stems from a basic shift in mindset.
"My opinion is that you can't separate language from content," Porter said. "There's no way you can teach the language of science and social studies and math separate from the classroom in which that content is embedded. Language is part of that. We need to be teaching them at the same time."
Nowhere is that urgency more evident than at the Hollys. The schools' population comprises a high percentage of English language learners. In addition to its students from nearby neighborhoods, the school welcomes learners who are bussed in from Glendale in Denver.
That profile makes for a student body with a rich and diverse combination of backgrounds and cultures. Caskey works with young students whose first languages range from Swahili to Arabic to Navajo. That echoes the larger trend in the district – in Cherry Creek, the first language of the majority of English students is not Spanish. Instead, it's a much more cosmopolitan mix.
In addition to linguistic instruction, Caskey and her colleagues have worked with students and teachers to understand basic cultural differences.
"Part of our job as ELA specialists is to help the staff be aware of how different cultures may respond to teachers," Caskey said. "For some cultures, it's disrespectful to look at your teachers. Here, if you don't look at your teachers, it's a sign of disrespect."
Addressing those differences with teachers and students in the classroom makes a big difference in the everyday work of learning, Caskey said. She recalled the rapid progress of a kindergartener from Nepal, a young student who spoke virtually no English. What's more, she had never used a pencil with an eraser or a glue stick when she arrived at the Hollys. Mere months later, the same student was "almost proficient," a change that came about largely because of her inclusion in the daily dynamic of the classroom.
"She's in first grade this year, and she's almost proficient," Caskey said. "If you think about the fact that she came in with no English, no reading or writing or speaking skills … It's pretty advanced growth."