When Pedro Martinez arrived at La Joya Middle School in Visalia, Liz Serrato knew she had to reach him.
“I want to challenge you,” she told him when he said he preferred learning with other Spanish-speaking students. She urged him to take up the trumpet, which helped him meet new classmates.
Martinez came from Michoacán, Mexico – the same part of Mexico where Serrato spent her childhood. Feeling a connection to him because of their shared Mexican heritage, Serrato knew all too well what he and other English learners face. She was 15 when she came to the United States.
Now she’s on a mission to help spread her methods for teaching English learners and closely monitoring their progress throughout the Visalia Unified School District.
“If we send them to high school without being able to speak and write and read English, then we are condemning them to not making it in high school,” she said, explaining that she is motivated by the students.
Serrato began her work at La Joya Middle School in 2000 as a teacher’s aide, then taught there from 2004 to 2014, when she became a learning director. In that administrative position, she created an innovative system of checks and balances to ensure that English learners made progress.
“I could never have dreamed that I would be where I am today if it wasn’t for teachers who believed in me and inspired me to reach my dreams,” said Liz Serrato, principal at Washington Elementary.
Based partially on the success of that system, she was recently promoted to principal at Washington Elementary.
“My emphasis this year is going to be to create confident readers who will talk academically about what they’re reading in every subject, so we can give them that opportunity to succeed,” Serrato said.
“The main thing is to prepare kids for the next year and for the futures they want,” she said. “I don’t want them stuck. I want them to have choices.”
Todd Oto, superintendent of Visalia Unified, said he was so impressed by Serrato’s work at La Joya that he is hoping she can set up a similar system that could be replicated throughout the district at its 25 elementary schools. Already, he said, La Joya and other district middle schools are planning to continue to assist students using Serrato’s methods.
These include: assessing students’ strengths and weaknesses by analyzing test scores and other academic data, building strong relationships with students and their families, tracking their progress closely, and collaborating with teachers on interventions.
Although education researchers and experts consider all of these to be “best practices” for educating students – especially English learners – it is rare to see them well-implemented in a coordinated way, said Madeline Mavrogordato, assistant professor of education at Michigan State University, whose research focuses on English language learners.
“One of the things we stress more than any other in schools is that we need individualized instruction based on different needs – and she’s doing that in a data-driven way, which is amazing,” said Mavrogordato, after hearing about Serrato’s work. “The powerful aspect is that this data is actually being used to drive what’s happening with these kids on a day-to-day basis, even in terms of some of the activities she’s encouraging kids to take up.”
California has the highest percentage of English learners in the country, with 22 percent of its students speaking a language other than English. To reach these students, the state’s English language arts/English language development framework – which is like a blueprint for providing Common Core and English language instruction – requires that they learn English literacy skills in all subjects.
To help carry that out, Serrato developed a system where she met with teachers every six weeks to discuss short-term and long-term goals for students, such as improving reading comprehension, building vocabulary or practicing combining sentences.
Serrato blends her technical expertise with a strong sense of culture and community, which makes her well-qualified to build trust between students, their families and their schools, Oto said.
“Liz’s story is significant for us because she has lived the life the kids she’s leading now are living currently,” he said.
Serrato graduated from Alisal High in Salinas, then obtained a bachelor’s degree in sociology and a teaching credential from Chapman University. She also earned a master’s degree from Fresno Pacific University.
At both La Joya and Washington Elementary, Serrato said she has been determined to ensure that all students – especially English learners – feel connected to school.
“I could never have dreamed that I would be where I am today if it wasn’t for teachers who believed in me and inspired me to reach my dreams,” she said. “I want the same for every kid in our school system. We owe it to them.”
During an English language class at La Joya in May, Serrato noticed student Jorge Garcia used the word “unsuitable” in a sentence he wrote.
“What does that mean?” she asked him gently, leaning over his desk and making eye contact with him.
“Not good for,” he responded.
“I love the way you’re using that word in your writing,” she said, smiling, “because that shows that you understand the text.”
Raquel Peña, who taught English learners at La Joya, said she enjoyed collaborating with Serrato.
“She’s a good role model,” Peña said, explaining that Serrato’s personal experiences and warmth resonated with students and teachers. “It’s like a family.”
After Serrato visited a social studies class, Alison Mendez, 13, said her English development test scores soared in 7th grade, in part thanks to the support she received from Serrato and the teachers at La Joya, whom she felt paid more attention to her than her elementary school staff.
“That was so exciting, because I could see they cared,” Alison said, adding that she was redesignated as English-fluent that year. “They actually knew that I was working hard and gave me the help I needed.”
Serrato beamed, noting that she had placed Mendez in a program called “AVID,” which stands for “Advancement Via Individual Determination,” to provide her with extra support in 7th grade and help prepare her to pursue college and a career while improving her ability to communicate and navigate in the academic world.
If a student fails, Serrato said she and her coworkers feel like they have failed.
Melanie Stringer, assistant superintendent for instructional services in Visalia Unified, said the work Serrato and the La Joya staff began with English learners is a model for others throughout the district.
“We have two years to get them to high school,” she said. “This is intense and targeted.”
Travis Hambleton, principal at La Joya, has hired a new learning director who previously worked closely with Serrato as an intervention teacher.
“Our plan is to continue what Liz started,” he said, adding that his staff has already analyzed the test scores of incoming 7th-graders and identified “students that need you.”
“We share with the teachers data on their reading levels and test scores,” he said. “So, right from day one, the teachers know their names and they’re ready to give them the help they need.”
In 2014-15, 48 percent of La Joya’s total student body met or exceeded English language arts standards on Smarter Balanced tests, barely higher than the 44 percent state average. Results for English learners at La Joya closely mirrored results for English learners in grades 7 and 8 statewide, with no more than 5 percent of students meeting standards. Among English learners who had been reclassified as English-proficient, 52 percent of La Joya 8th-graders met standards compared to 47 percent of reclassified 8th-graders statewide.
In 2015-16, the percentage of La Joya students who met or exceeded English language arts standards on the tests grew by 10 percentage points, according to preliminary results received by the district, Oto said.
That growth, he said, is partially thanks to Serrato and the system she established for helping students succeed.
“She is very worthy of recognition,” he said, “and her work is worthy of recognition.”
Serrato said she is proud of the system of protocols she set up at La Joya, which others can follow.
“We all have a heart for those students,” she said. “But it is my passion because I was one of those kids.”
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