Hesperia USD does it differently with personalized supports for English learners

March 6, 2018 Staff Writer

A counselor, whose primary focus is on Reclassified Fluent English Proficient students, and new bilingual aides for Long Term English Learners are connecting students with the resources they need to be successful in school and achieve post-graduation goals.

By Cindy Costa

As we move further into the 21st century, the lines become blurred when we try to predict the world our students will enter into as citizens. Educators nationwide work endlessly to prepare students to be college and career ready with knowledge and skills. However, with technology and innovations emerging so rapidly, it is difficult to track the future for our kids, especially our English learners (EL).

How do we meet the needs of 1.3 million EL students in California, who are tethered by their lack of language acquisition, and ensure this underserved population will survive post high school in an unfamiliar future world? What Hesperia Unified School District (HUSD) discovered was it didn’t need to do more for students, it just needed to do things differently.

Three years ago, to support the educational pedagogical paradigm shift, “Get Out of Jail Free” cards were issued by the superintendent to HUSD administrators, teachers and staff to challenge them to be innovative, try creative pathways, or take risks. Educators pioneered inventive authentic learning practices for 22,000 students district-wide by taking to heart Rick Dufour’s “learn by doing” philosophy to ensure 21st century students, who can communicate effectively, collaborate well with others, think critically, and creatively apply learning to new situations (“Learn By Doing,” Dufour 2010, 2016).

As a result of that visionary thinking, HUSD’s Director of K-12 Programs Darrel Nickolaisen tried a fresh approach to better serve the EL population of 4,200 students (19.44 percent). He supported the hiring of a district counselor, whose primary focus is on high school Reclassified Fluent English Proficient (RFEP) students, and bilingual aides for Long Term English Learners (LTEL).

According to Nickolaisen LTELs have been drawing an increasing amount of attention over the past few years with the release of the publication, “Reparable Harm,” (2010), which served as a wake-up call to educators and policymakers throughout the state to find ways to address the needs of this largely neglected group of students.

“RFEP students are among the highest academic achievers in the district,” Nickolaisen said. “Yet many of them fail to complete A-G requirements, take necessary college entrance exams, or apply for scholarships that would allow them to attend a university.” He stressed they need additional support, guidance and encouragement to navigate the process of preparing for college, as their parents often are unaware of these requirements and, therefore, unable to help.”

HUSD’s counselor and bilingual aide positions were specifically created to serve the distinct needs of each group and supplement services provided by high school counselors. “They meet frequently with students to encourage them in their studies and to hold them accountable for their learning goals,” Nickolaisen said. “In many ways they serve as switchboard operators, connecting students with the resources they need to be successful in school and achieve their post-graduation goals.”

Many LTEL/RFEP students and their families fantasize about high school graduation and a continuing college education. “All too often, their dreams have been shattered by the realization that they were not enrolled in the proper courses their 10th grade year or that a failing grade in one semester of math would prevent them from graduating,” Nickolaisen acknowledged. “This is no longer the case.” HUSD found a way to successfully equip students through perseverance, tough love and grit, thanks to the determined work of one counselor and three aides.

Enter veteran middle school counselor Lauren Cisneros, who had the courage to apply for a job without defined parameters other than to serve the unique needs of these struggling groups. “My role is to help students discover and understand what they are good at doing and where their interests lie in order to guide them to their true path post high school,” Cisneros said.

In first semester, Cisneros meets each student individually to introduce her RFEP counselor role, get to know the students, and initiate the goal setting process. She aims to develop within each student a growth mindset, as some students are skeptical about their future possibilities. Cisneros discovered that was a common occurrence. Many RFEP students limit their aspirations because of their many different circumstances: poor, undocumented, have never left the area.

She shows them evidence of their grades to demonstrate they’re capable of attaining GPAs required for college entry, or reviews options to get them on track. Over time, she builds their confidence and supports them by impressing “they can do it.” Cisneros intentionally met two or three times a month with the 10th, 11th and 12th graders.

In second semester, she identifies and monitors ninth grade RFEP students to provide extra support for them. The 10th graders review their career interests and gain a good understanding of A-G requirements. In 11th grade, Cisneros ensures every student is earning a 3.0 GPA, filing for Cal Grants to provide tuition support, and researching and visiting colleges.

In 12th grade, GPA calculations are initiated, SAT/ACT exams are secured, and college application workshops are available. Every step of the way, parents and guardians are recruited to join the conversation and learn together with their child about what it takes to prepare for a college education.

“My goal as an RFEP counselor is to remind, convince and reiterate to these students that they can accomplish anything they set their mind to and that they have the help needed,” Cisneros said. “They just need to learn to take advantage and utilize their resources.” She said the navigation of the college process can “get tricky” but she encouraged her EL caseload to seek out help through her and the other counselors.

“Raising awareness for EL students through applying, being accepted, and going to college allowed them to reach higher,” she said. “At the end of the day, the RFEP counselor is an extra person who cares about them and their future.” As part of the process, it helps students believe in themselves and shows them they can accomplish anything they set their mind to doing. “It includes hard work, sacrifices, discipline and dedication,” Cisneros said.  “Students realize that it does pay off in the end.” Simply put, it’s one more person who cares about them.

“It has been an amazing experience and very rewarding because as the students continue through their educational journey, you see them evolve and accomplish their goals after all the long hours of hard work and staying dedicated to their goal,” Cisneros said. “Then they experience the reward, fruits of their labor, such as getting accepted into the university of their choice.”

Cisneros recognizes the reality of what these students experience, as she came to this country as an elementary student from Nicaragua. She shares her story often to motivate students and let them know she understands their struggles as an EL student. “I was you,” she encourages. “It can be done!” She wants to provide resources to help the students realize they have choices and to take advantage of the choices available. Cisneros is a beacon of hope to the RFEP students.

“I don’t want them to feel like my husband, an EL student, in that there weren’t any options for him,” Cisneros said. “He felt like no one took an interest in helping him develop his full potential.” Her goal is to open the door of opportunities they didn’t know existed for them and guide them to their future pathway.

“The culmination is the smile on their face when they get that acceptance letter into the college of their choice, and sometimes it will take a while for them to assimilate it,” Cisneros said. “It can seem surreal, but once they conceptualized what it means, the look is priceless!”

One senior stands out on Cisneros’ caseload. She was accepted at UC Davis even though everyone suggested she limit her applications to community colleges and not seek out four-year universities. “Sam beat her circumstances,” Cisneros beamed. “She aspired to do more, in spite of whatever life threw at her. She overcame it and used it as her catalyst to keep moving. She surpassed her own expectations.”

Cisneros believed Sam did not play into the victim role; although in everyday living, “she had plenty of instances where it was almost inevitable.” Sam shared her personal story as one of her high school graduation speakers, acknowledging the significance of Cisneros’ role on her journey and publically thanking her.

“Another one of my students raised her own expectations and took a concurrent enrollment class at a community college in order to be eligible to attend a university, which she will be attending in the fall,” Cisneros said. “When I begin working with her she did not believe that was a possibility for her.”

According to Nickolaisen, high school graduation rates for LTEL students have raised from 83 percent to 93 percent since the program’s inception two years ago, and now are on par with the district’s overall graduation rate. GPAs for LTEL students in this program have also increased. At HUSD, the college application and acceptance rate is more than a third higher for RFEP students participating in the program. A-G completion rates are also significantly higher by 15 percent than the district average.

Doing it differently ensures HUSD upholds its mission of “preparing today’s students for tomorrow’s world.”

Language Support Services works to ensure that students’ language needs are met each year. Translating services, EL testing, Title III compliance, PD for EL instruction, and world language support are services offered. However, the personal touch of the LTEL aides gives students and families that extra boost to confidently claim their future.

An LTEL is a classification given to students who have been enrolled in U.S. schools for more than six years, who are not showing progress in English proficiency, and who are struggling academically due to their limited English skills. Often LTEL students struggle with reading, writing and academic language.

“Many of our LTEL’s are bilingual and articulate in English and many sound like native English speakers,” LTEL aide Ana Perez observed. “They usually have limited writing and reading skills in both their native language and in English, and their academic literacy skills in English are not as well developed as their social-language abilities.” LTELs characteristically are identified at the Intermediate level of English proficiency.   

“I try to get to know the student as much as I can during our first meeting. I then work my way up through the grades and follow up with prior goals,” Perez said. Goals differ from passing a test, to passing a class, to turning in homework. “A lot of times students don’t think they’ll be able to meet a certain goal,” she said. “When it’s met, you can see the change in how they view themselves. They are more confident.”

“The majority of my LTEL students don't set goals on their own, nor do they have parents who help them create them at home,” said LTEL aide Esmeralda Lara. “Students who met their goals are happy to see their improvement and growth.” Aides meet with them regularly to check up on their progress and review their growth toward attainment.

LTEL aide Pilar Ibarra uses a goal sheet, where students’ list things they would like to achieve first semester and she supports them in accomplishing each one. “I help the students achieve their goals by doing research online, making phone calls to schools, universities and the military to get all the information and questions answered,” she said. “I work very closely with the counselors and career center staff to make sure I have the correct dates of upcoming workshops.” The aides give information to students in small groups to help them plan for college, financial aid and future careers. 

According to Ibarra, a high school male student had no plans of going to school after graduation. “He just had no inspiration in life, and his parents wanted him to go to work,” she said. Ibarra spent time talking to him about the military and giving him informational fliers. She provided resources to show him a future pathway. “He realized that he had something in life to look forward to,” she said. “He decided to join the Army and make something with his life.”

Many former students keep in contact with the LTEL aides for continued guidance after graduation. “One high school senior started off having a rough year, (but) she gained confidence in her abilities,” Ibarra said. “She recently contacted me to thank me and to express her excitement for her first year in college.” 

“I love my job!” Lara exclaimed. “I love that I can help parents keep track of their students’ grades, and I love that I can be an example to my students through my own personal experience as a previous EL student.” There was an obvious increase in parent contacts throughout the school year – making inquiries about assignments, grades and absences. The program’s success has resulted in increased hours for LTEL aides this year to ensure extra supports for EL students.

Together, HUSD staff collaborates with EL students and parents to successfully carve out their personal pathways. There is no doubt developing relationships and collaborating with RFEP counselors and LTEL aides is extremely rewarding for all parties. EL students are confidently crossing the graduation stage with a plan to attend the college of their choice thanks to the innovative approach of “doing it differently” at HUSD.

Cindy Costa retired in December from work in grant writing, outreach and site support at Hesperia Unified School District. She continues to serve HUSD in Innovative Technology and Communications. Hesperia Unified is a rural district with suburban characteristics, located 35 miles north of San Bernardino and 90 miles northeast of Los Angeles. HUSD is in a “commuter” community known as the High Desert that extends across 161 miles, serving 22,000 Pre-K-12 students at 25 sites in San Bernardino County.

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