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January 23, 2020
Vol. 15
No. 10

ESL After the Bell: After-School Programs Give English Learners a Boost

The library at H.D. Cooke Elementary School bustles with activity. At a small table, two 2nd grade students are talking to a group of parents about the dangers of plastic in the ocean. At another table, 5th graders are proudly showing off the video they made about the importance of water conservation. These students are part of ESL After the Bell, an after-school program where English language learners (ELLs) engage in project-based activities to build their background knowledge and English proficiency.

From Intervention to Standard Practice

Center City Public Charter Schools, a network of six charter schools in Washington, D.C., developed ESL After the Bell in 2012 in response to performance gaps between ELLs and non-ELLs. English as a Second Language (ESL) instruction had mostly consisted of push-in support in classrooms.
To design the curriculum, central office staff used Title III funds to target specific areas of growth, identifying standards where ELLs were performing at least 10 percentage points lower than their peers ((Garcia & Williams, 2015). All K–8 ELLs could participate in the program, which ran two hours after school, four days a week, over four months. After only one year, math and reading proficiency rates of those students rose by 30 and 35 percentage points, respectively, and 50 percent of ELLs exited formal ELL classification.
Today, the program operates in three Center City schools for its growing ELL population (who represent 18 percent of total enrollment and speak 14 different languages). Students in 2nd through 5th grades attend two days a week for two hours a day over a period of 20 weeks. In the 2017–18 school year, ELLs across D.C. traditional and charter public schools who participated in the program met their ACCESS test growth targets at double the rate of non-participants (Passante & Sanchez Pimienta, 2019).
ESL After the Bell provides a valuable model for schools to enhance EL instruction through after-school programs. Though we are not involved in the program ourselves, we think Center City's strong results are replicable on a grander scale and want districts in need of effective ELL programs to understand the process behind this work.

A Rigorous and Research-Based Curriculum

ELLs face the dual challenge of learning academic content while simultaneously acquiring English. Research shows that after-school programs can be uniquely beneficial for ELLs, particularly when they offer students extra time to engage with rigorous content and language learning (Maxwell-Jolly, 2011). ESL After the Bell has four essential elements: (1) alignment to Common Core State Standards (CCSS) and (2) to WIDA standards; (3) service learning; and (4) project-based learning (see Figure 1). These elements help students build relevant background knowledge, use their emerging English language skills, and design projects to investigate pressing global issues. 
Element 1: Alignment with Common Core State Standards
Research suggests that general education teachers often believe ELLs are unable to take on work that demands critical thinking and offer them watered-down content (Figueroa-Murphy & Torff, 2018). The CCSS placed a strong focus on language, thereby calling on all teachers to play a role in students' literacy development (Bunch, Kibler, Pimentel, 2013). For the program, students group up by grade level to engage with corresponding ELA standards. Content links to grade-level expectations and to daily instruction. Students might practice writing a paragraph based on a text in a small group with a teacher who is highly attuned to their language needs.
Element 2: Alignment with WIDA
The curriculum emphasizes English proficiency across reading, writing, speaking, and listening. Research documents that ELLs often master conversational English within two to three years, but it can take five to seven years for proficiency in more formal academic English (Hakuta, Butler, Witt, 2000). To that end, each lesson includes vocabulary words that are taught up front, and activities with opportunities to speak using more academic language (group discussions, think-pair-share, and presentations).
Instructors, who are a mix of general and ESL teachers, also use Center City's individualized English Learner plans—developed using students' language assessment data—to set goals, track growth, and drive teacher instruction. The instructional team uses baseline WIDA ACCESS scores to set goals at least one instructional level above where students are in speaking, listening, reading, and writing.
Element 3: Project-Based Learning
Project-based learning is an instructional approach that puts student interests at the center, with substantive projects that solve an authentic problem or answer a pressing question (Buck Institute for Education, n.d.). Some researchers also believe PBL is promising for social and academic language development. Specifically, O'Brien, Lavadenz and Armas highlighted how PBL's focus on having students confront "a real-world problem that requires authentic solutions" facilitates academic language development and PBL's cooperative nature promotes peer interactions that support language development through problem-solving and dialogue (2014, p. 26).
In ESL After the Bell, students work together to design projects that use analysis and evaluation to answer questions such as, "How do we sustain a growing global population?" Isabella Sanchez Pimienta, an ESL teacher at H.D. Cooke, says working in groups is useful because "some kids are really developed in their writing and not in their speaking. It's a great opportunity to collaborate with kids who are in different places in terms of their language acquisition."
Element 4: An Emphasis on Service Learning
Service-learning projects apply academic skills to address local or global issues. Student voice is one of the key components. At one school, students created a project of their choice that raised awareness in their school community about taking care of our planet. They wrote and delivered weekly announcements, held contests for their peers, and planned an Earth Day celebration where they taught everyone how to make environmentally friendly cleaning products.

Developing a Dissemination Strategy

The program's curriculum allows schools to duplicate similar learning experiences. Unit plans and individual lesson plans coalesce around one unifying theme or question, with grade-level texts, pictures, graphic organizers, videos, multimedia, and formative assessments to track progress. In 2017, Center City received a dissemination grant from the DC Office of the State Superintendent to expand ESL After the Bell to H.D. Cooke, a traditional public school. Because all teachers received professional development on PBL and other elements of the program, they are able to make lesson adjustments to suit their students' unique needs.
Center City leaders are exploring ways to bring the program into more schools, including offering the curriculum as a digitized open educational resource. Perhaps the greatest benefit of making ESL After the Bell curriculum freely accessible will be ensuring that more ELLs have access to an instructional model that changes their learning trajectory.

Buck Institute for Education (n.d.) What is PBL? Retrieved from www.pblworks.org/what-is-pbl

Bunch, G.C., Kibler, A., Pimental, S. (2013). Realizing Opportunities for English Learners in the Common Core English Language Arts and Disciplinary Standards. Palo Alto, CA: Understanding Language, Graduate School of Education, Stanford University.

Figueroa Murphy, A. & Torff, B. (2018). Teachers' beliefs about rigor of curriculum for English language learners. The Educational Forum, 83, 90-101.

Garcia, A. & Williams, C.P. (2015). Stories from the Nation's Capital: Building instructional programs and supports for dual language learners from PreK-3rd grade in Washington, DC. Washington, DC: New America.

Hakuta, K., Butler, Y.G., & Witt, D. (2000). How long does it take English learners to attain proficiency? Berkeley, CA: University of California Linguistic Minority Research Institute.

Maxwell-Jolly, J. (2011). English learners and out-of-school time programs: The potential of OST programs to foster EL success. Afterschool Matters, Fall, 1-12.

O'Brien, G., Lavadenz, M., and Armas, E. (2014). Project-based learning for English learners: Promises and challenges. In J. Gustafson-Corea (Ed.), The Multilingual Educator (pp. 24-28). Covina, CA: California Association of Bilingual Education.

Passante, A. and Sanchez Pimienta, I. (2019, June). ESL After the Bell: Innovative instruction for English Learners. Presentation at 2019 DC Office of the State Superintendent of Education Multilingual Learner Conference.

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