In Pursuit of Achievement for English Learners
What a diverse school district does to generate higher literacy among non-English speakers and low-income students
/School Administrator, November 2019

A student at Cerritos Elementary School reads to Mary Sieu, superintendent of California’s ABC Unified School District.
As a daughter of an immigrant family from mainland China, I entered school knowing only a few words of English. My home with my sisters and brother was in the laundry where my mother and father worked. We spoke only Cantonese at home and I never realized we were poor until I went to school in Chicago.

I learned to love the world of school and the caring teachers who not only taught me English but inspired me to dream beyond my conditions at home. By 8th grade, I was the president of the Future Teachers of America with aspirations to become a teacher.

Before I left for high school, one of my teachers returned a dictionary that I had created as I was learning English at the elementary school. She kept it for many years and knew it illustrated my development as a learner of English. Ultimately, it was my passion for school that led me to become a teacher, reading specialist and administrator throughout my adult life. However, it’s only in America that an English learner and low-income student would one day become a superintendent of an outstanding school district in California.

Now in my eighth year as superintendent and 30th year overall in the ABC Unified School District southeast of Los Angeles, I remain committed to improving literacy and achievement for all students. Of the district’s 30,500 students, more than 51 percent are low income. Forty-five percent are Hispanic, 38 percent are Asian and only 6 percent are white. One of five students is an English learner.

With such diversity in the student population, it’s been exciting to learn that we are moving in the right directions. Three of our 19 elementary schools that have focused on reading have been recognized by the federal government as National Blue Ribbon Schools. ABC Unified School District has earned 18 Golden Bell Awards by the California School Boards Association since 2002. The first Golden Bell Award was won for the Southside Schools Reading Collaborative, focusing on improving reading and literacy achievement for English learners and low income students in six schools. ABC Unified School District also was recognized as one of 50 California districts for outperforming expectations for student achievement on the state’s new rigorous assessments, especially with students of color, in a 2018 Learning Policy Institute study “California’s Positive Outliers: Districts Beating the Odds.”

The story of Artesia High School, an “outlier” school that overcame steep odds, became the opening chapter of Karin Chenoweth’s book Schools That Succeed.

Overcoming Odds
How was it possible for a school where almost 80 percent of the students come from low-income families to perform comparably to students in middle-class schools? The 16-year principal of Artesia High School attributes the transformation to our strategic plan’s ambitious goals for low-income students. Artesia High’s slow but steady growth was powered by the vision of a school where all students had access to the most rigorous courses — those typically available only in wealthier neighborhoods.

What contributed to the closing of educational gaps at Artesia High School were these factors: (1) central-office support; (2) superior teaching along with a passion for students; (3) support systems for students and teachers; (4) frequent contact with parents and community; and (5) effective resource management.

Today, the school has a 97 percent graduation rate of whom 19 percent are English language learners, open access to all Advanced Placement and honors classes, a Renaissance Program that celebrates academic achievement, an AP Summer Academy, a dynamic AVID program and more than a dozen Career and Technical Education Pathways classes.

Artesia’s success generates inspiration and confirms our efforts to improve English learners’ achievement. We focus on smaller wins and continuous improvement.

Guiding Principles
Creating a better future for English learners is a systemic endeavor where we look at our data, academic offerings, instructional practices, resource allocations, learning environment and so on. Deeply held beliefs drive our work in ABC Unified.

» No. 1: English learners are capable of excelling at rigorous academic work with the support they need.
We have provided all students with equitable access to a rigorous curriculum with aligned instructional materials and assessments. This includes fully implementing the California Standards for English language arts, English language development, math and history-social studies.

We offer open Advanced Placement in multiple subjects, including English, Chinese, Japanese and Spanish. A Seal of Biliteracy with the high school diploma is provided for Spanish, Chinese, Japanese, Korean and French. As a result, roughly 160 students graduated from Cerritos High School with the Seal of Biliteracy last year.

To prepare students for higher-level coursework, we’ve focused on improving the rates of students who are English proficient and in 2017-18 the reclassification rate was 15.4 percent. (See related story.)

As superintendent, I monitor teacher recommendations for students in English development courses, raising questions about the root causes of slow progress. “Is it truly a learning disability or is it related to mastery of English?” “What else is going on with this child?” I also follow the progress of high-ability students.

I remind all students of their accomplishments: They are gifted if they are language learners. I tell them, “Learning a language is an asset.”

» No. 2: English learners are as diverse in their backgrounds as all learners. Solutions must be tailored to address both academic and non-academic factors.

Superintendent Mary Sieu (second from right) with students at an international assembly at Burbank Elementary School in Artesia, Calif.

Some second language learners are struggling to learn a new language but not all of them are; some have had formal education in their native language before moving to our district; others arrive with no formal schooling. Some live in poverty and some come from wealthy families.

Professional development in social-emotional learning and trauma have received recent attention.

» No. 3: Superior instruction for English learners builds on students’ personal experiences and interests and demands the professional growth of teachers.
Teacher preparation and qualification is one of the most important school-based predictors of student achievement, according to the Learning Policy Institute study “California’s Positive Outliers: Districts Beating the Odds.”

For marginalized students, it’s even more important. Each year, we provide thousands of teachers, administrators and classified personnel with quality professional development on equity and cultural proficiency. Teachers receive extensive training in English language development, teaching reading, content by grade level and instructional practices for English learners.

» No. 4: The high quality of relationships with staff and the administration makes success possible.
We have recruited, supported and retained effective professionals at all levels of the organization, many of whom speak a second language (commonly Spanish). I have found that collaboration, including shared decision making, goal alignment and teacher voice, has resulted in positive outcomes for all students and strengthened relationships with teachers’ and classified unions. Less turnover of staff and increased commitment follow.

Student Interaction
As I visit schools every week, I commonly observe classrooms where students are highly engaged with each other. The productive noise is widespread throughout the district because we expect students to be collaborating and cooperating on projects together. This is particularly the case with the English language development classes where English learners are interacting with each other as well as with native English speakers.

We have moved from a model where the teacher did the majority of speaking to a shared model with student interaction.

When I consider the practices that have contributed to our academic success, I would attribute our tenacious focus on strategic plan directions approved by our governance team. I have discussed teacher professional growth already and expand on family and community engagement in a related article. Three other areas deserve mention: (1) academic achievement for all; (2) system to support student success; and (3) effective resource management.

» No. 1: Academic achievement for all
To raise student achievement for English learners and low-income English learners, superintendents and staff must analyze data. In our case, we used the results of the new California state assessments of English language proficiency to put in place additional supports for English learners.

We extended the availability of the language acquisition programs for our English learners during the summer. For newcomers just learning English, we created the Language Excels Academy for middle and high school students. Summer secondary-level offerings include makeup courses to meet “a-g” requirements for the University of California and California state university systems and programs to support English learners with special needs.

For elementary students, we promote extra academic support through the Saturday Morning Academic Reading Time (SMART) Academy, Jump Start Summer School and individual interventions during and after school.

» No. 2: System to support student success
To ensure we maintain a caring, nurturing and culturally responsive environment, we offer mental health and counseling opportunities for students and families with social and emotional needs. The school district now employs 34 full-time mental health professionals, primarily social workers who provide socio-emotional services through our multi-tiered system of support.

Academic counselors are available to assist secondary school students. In addition, 27 schools are implementing the Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports program. The district’s PBIS coaches train school employees to cultivate positive student academic and behavioral outcomes.

» No. 3: Effective resource management
One of my most important roles is to ensure our resources align with district goals to a maximum extent. Staffing, professional development and curriculum are the highest priorities for English learners. Our schools’ instructional learning environments and security will be upgraded as the result of a $258 million bond measure that passed last November.

Personal Journey
As superintendent of ABCUSD, I have reflected on my personal history as an English learner and my journey through poverty. Whenever I’m asked to speak, my final message re-mains the same: “Our demographics do not determine our destiny. It’s not where we started, it’s where we’re going.”

MARY SIEU is superintendent of the ABC Unified School District in Cerritos, Calif. Twitter: @abcsupt