When teacher Brenda Lopez leads her preschool class, she makes her students do a lot of talking – to the ceiling, to the floor, to the wall, to their hands, to each other.
The Spanish-speaking children keep repeating words and phrases so they remember.
Lopez’s class is part of the Sobrato Early Academic Language, or SEAL, program that aims to help English learners starting in preschool so they don’t struggle in school later. SEAL classes stress vocabulary, talking and role-playing among students, while their teachers undergo extensive training and their parents are encouraged to get involved. The program, founded in 2008, is seen as a model of how to educate young English learners and has won awards from the California School Board Association and the California Association for Bilingual Education.
Children who participated in the first SEAL classes began preschool with limited skills in both their native languages and English, but by the time they entered kindergarten their scores were equal to or higher than a comparison group of peers on language, literacy and mathematics tests, according to findings from a Sobrato-funded evaluation. By the end of preschool, 82 percent of children were at grade level on math tests.
“We were able to bring it to life in real schools,” said Laurie Olsen, a researcher specializing in English learners who developed the SEAL program. “I knew there had to be a prevention piece or we’d constantly be playing catch-up.”
The Sobrato Family Foundation, formed by the development company’s founders in Silicon Valley, was looking to invest in reducing educational inequities when members settled on helping English learners, who make up more than one-quarter of children in San Mateo and Santa Clara counties.
“It was very evident that English learners were having a disproportionately negative educational outcome,” said Kenji Treanor, the Sobrato Family Foundation’s senior program officer.
The foundation turned to Olsen, who had studied strategies for English learners and worked with districts since the 1990s. Olsen later authored the oft-cited 2010 report, “Reparable Harm” for Californians Together, finding that 59 percent of English learners in middle and high schools had been in United States schools for more than six years without learning enough English to be “reclassified” as proficient.
Olsen got a grant in 2008 to develop the SEAL program from the ground up – starting with pre-kindergarten – to help English learners close the academic gap between them and their English-fluent peers by 3rd grade. Seven years later, the SEAL approach is showing success in initial findings.
“I knew walking into the design of SEAL what good practice should look like and would look like,” Olsen said.
The foundation invested $6.6 million to develop the SEAL program, try it for five years in three schools and evaluate the outcomes for about 700 students. The three schools enrolled about 90 percent Hispanics and 70 percent English learners.
Initially, SEAL was going to wait until the pilot was completed before releasing any results. But the founders decided to release early findings after two years.
“By the time the kids finished first grade, the findings were very, very powerful already,” Olsen said.
So, the foundation began spreading the word and helping other schools. The program has since expanded to 65 schools in 11 districts with more than 39,000 students statewide.
In the classroom
The program can be taught in Spanish, English or a combination of both. The goal is for children to become bilingual and biliterate, although it’s not always done in classes if the teacher speaks English only.
The five-year evaluation found that children in bilingual programs scored higher on Spanish and English language tests and made even greater gains in Spanish than those in English-only classes. The final study has yet to be published.
The program takes an effort from the whole district – from the administrators down to the parents – to accomplish the goal of making sure children become proficient in English by the end of elementary school.
Teachers undergo an intense 12 days of training and planning to learn how to execute the program. In the classroom, they stress academic language – not just kid words. Parents get involved, learning how to use the vocabulary at home and helping out in classes.
The Mountain View School District, which is in El Monte in Los Angeles County, was the first district outside of Silicon Valley to adopt the SEAL approach last year.
On a recent Friday afternoon in October, Lopez, who teaches mostly in Spanish, told the children in her Head Start class that they would be learning a new palabra cientifico – a scientific word. With that, she started a unit on el cuerpo humano – the human body.
As they sat on the rug, Lopez asked the children to turn to each other, holding each other’s hands to make a bridge, puente. Then, they had to ask each other, “What is the human body?” in Spanish.
Lopez later asked the children to name body parts to each other, then to the group. “Kiss your head,” Lopez said, putting her lips to her hand and placing it on her head.
Lopez said this level of vocabulary wouldn’t happen in classes before the district adopted the SEAL approach. Children might learn about the body, but wouldn’t learn specific words, like torso.
Last year, Lopez realized the program was working when she saw students’ reactions as they studied animals. One day, they talked about a bear that had garras afiladas, or sharp claws. On another day, her aide brought in a parrot. A girl in the class pointed out that the parrot, too, had garras afiladas – making the connection between the two animals.
“I like the fact that we’re introducing children to higher academic vocabulary,” Lopez said. “We’re giving them the vocabulary that they normally wouldn’t be exposed to.”
In addition to helping children with vocabulary in class, SEAL also shows parents how to help their children at home.
In the three pilot schools, students’ families had an average yearly income of $27,384 for a household of four. About 87 percent of parents had a high school diploma or less. Through SEAL’s efforts, the evaluation found that half of SEAL parents eventually were reading books with their children on a daily basis.
At Mountain View schools, teachers send vocabulary and homework to parents with every unit so they can have conversations with their children about the topics. Also, schools hold parent workshops where they learn chants and how to talk to their children. Parents are encouraged to volunteer, said Maria McCullough, a SEAL coach in the district.
In SEAL schools, preschool and kindergarten teachers get the chance to plan classes together. In a summer bridge program, Head Start and kindergarten teachers also instruct classes together for children about to enter kindergarten. Before SEAL, Head Start and elementary teachers rarely collaborated.
“It was a separate world,” McCullough said.
SEAL schools also get substitute teachers to cover teachers’ classes while they attend training sessions, and teachers get time to plan how they will teach what they learned in classes.
During a training session in mid-September, about 25 teachers learned how to do a “narrative retell” – taking a storybook and expanding it to a week of lessons, including posters, drawing, puppets and dramatization.
Olsen told the teachers to pick a story from a packet of books, focusing on those with lots of characters and dialogue. Teachers had already made a list of vocabulary that they wanted children to learn, so Olsen encouraged them to add those words to the lesson.
“What you want to pick for a narrative is a really good story,” Olsen said.
Finding the time, money and substitutes to allow for professional development are among the biggest challenges in instituting SEAL classes. School officials who are interested must send administrators and teachers to visit demonstration sites in Redwood City or San Jose, said Patricia Delaney, the foundation’s director of district partnerships.
SEAL will pay about 25 percent of the costs to train teachers and begin the program, but districts must come up with the remaining 75 percent, most of which pays for substitutes.
Sobrato is continuing to add schools and trainers, but officials who want to bring the program to their schools must plan about a year ahead of time.
While the pilot evaluation didn’t extend beyond 3rd grade, Olsen said she’s kept track of the students and found that most are “reclassified” as on par with English-speaking students by 5th grade.
Now that the pilot phase is completed, the foundation plans to start a new evaluation to gauge how the expansion is working.
The state was still using the California Standards Tests when the pilot started. Now, organizers want to see how children do on the new Smarter Balanced Assessments, which were given for the first time in spring 2015.
Between 7,000 and 10,000 students in SEAL will be tracked for at least three years.
“We want to make sure the implementation is consistent, high quality and we’re able to keep outcomes really strong, while also growing,” Treanor said.
This article is part of an occasional series of reports on the challenges facing preschools in preparing English learners for kindergarten and beyond.