While there is a plethora of information on culturally responsive instruction, this reflection highlights a birds-eye view of two educator-administrators who embraced the concept and implemented it—over time—with fidelity in our adjoining roles. We highlight key beliefs that we ensured were applied in practice, thus generating positive results for the English learners (ELs) in our care. For example, EL on-time graduation rate increased significantly; performance in state-mandated testing achievement increased as illustrated by a four-year longitudinal cohort. EL participation in higher-level courses and enrichment programs also increased, and we saw a reduction in EL drop-out rates as well.
Our work for English learners was based on three principles: relationships, relevance and rigor, aligned with our steering mantra from Gloria-Ladsen Billings: “When students are taught in ways that take into account their cultural contexts and that are culturally appropriate for them, they can achieve at higher levels.” We realized practices at both district and school levels must be aligned to ensure that each K-12 EL would receive a consistent message of expectation to attain high standards in academics. We strove for productive collaboration among district-level administrators, school administrators, teachers, aides and all personnel in contact with ELs.
Positive relationships begin with the core belief that each EL student has a knowledge base to contribute to their own learning. Educators must find the student’s level of readiness—daily and for each type of interaction—rather than suppose a lack of ability. This belief promotes a sense of respect and belonging emanating from educators which elevates students to become strengthened by their own self-awareness. This, in turn, cultivates growth possibilities within a genuinely inviting environment where parent/guardian aspirations are embraced by the educator and student alike.
Relevance of curriculum—including accessible materials for age-appropriate, grade-level content, scaffolded learning experiences and assessments for learning—is key to student engagement. ELs’ culture/s and ethnic background/s need to be represented in the learning process, coordinated with progressive goals to facilitate motivation and assessment tied to the instructed learning objectives. It is critical to include language objectives for the five literacy skills (listening, speaking, reading, writing, thinking) relevant to the content objectives and ELs’ levels of developing language. (See “Understanding by Design” by Jay McTighe and Grant Wiggins; “Strategies for Success with ELs: An ASCD Action Tool” by Virginia Pauline Rojas; and WIDA.)
Rigor addresses the belief that ELs are entitled to challenge themselves at high levels of thinking, with the understanding that ELs should receive content knowledge instruction from the first day of school enrollment. Educators plan and assess learning targets for age/grade-appropriate state and local curricula. In the immersion English environment, immediate consideration is given to their language development in determining literacy supports, and in fostering a belief in their ability as thinkers and problem solvers. Access is promoted for their eligibility for higher-level mathematics and sciences, gifted education, advanced placement and enrichment programs.
Positive results for students were also attributed to the participation of all central office and school personnel in required ongoing professional learning on how to cultivate growth environments. The learning plan included monitoring support. It was equally important for central office administrators to spearhead processes and procedures to result in maintaining open communication among stakeholders, for example, translation services, bilingual parent liaisons and counseling services.
In 1982, Cherif Sadki and Janine Deptuch became acquainted at UB in Richard Salzer’s ERE 509 course, Elementary School Curriculum Organization. Their first discussion in Baldy Hall on Piaget’s theory of learning confirmed a shared passion that inspired their marriage in 1983. Salzer said bringing the two together was his finest career accomplishment! Cherif earned a PhD in the Department of Educational Organization Administration and Policy in 1994. In 1985, Janine earned an MEd through the bilingual education program pioneered by Lilliam Malave Lopez. While a PhD candidate, she embarked on a path to become N-12-certified in teaching and administration, which she achieved by 1994.
Their individual focus on fostering achievement for at-risk students in urban and suburban settings opened doors for piloting opportunities as teachers. It also resulted in an instructional career packed with comparative learning action research. Their joint drive for serving diverse students, coupled with a keen desire to make a value-added difference in shaping students’ futures, propelled each of them to join the administrative ranks. Janine’s conscientious central office work as director of the K-12 English Learner Program and Services for Prince William County Schools (PWCS) in Virginia dovetailed with Cherif’s noble efforts in secondary school administration for PWCS. This was especially noteworthy during his principalship at Gar-Field High School in Woodbridge, Virginia. In summary, the Sadkis’ laser-focus on carving viable pathways for students and cultivating their academic success has left a definable footprint for students, educators and leaders.
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