MENLO PARK, Calif. – Hayward middle school teacher Sandra Molina, a veteran teacher of students learning English, knows the exact point when language gets in the way of their learning. She’s seen it time and again.
“Today we were working on writing paragraphs,” she said. “I give a topic sentence, and they have to give supporting details. Everyone can do it verbally, but when it comes to writing it, that’s it. They’re lost. They just stop.”
It’s an obstacle that can affect all aspects of a student’s life, from whether to finish high school and pursue college to what kind of work they might do after their education.
Now Molina’s students — in fact every student in Hayward’s 22,000-person district — have fresh reason to expect success in the classroom thanks to an ambitious program the Hayward Unified School District is launching with the support of a $2.75 million grant from The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.
The money, to be distributed over three years, will be used to implement a districtwide master plan to train administrators, teachers and even parents in the most effective ways to help students gain proficiency in English. The target audience is not only students mastering English for the first time, but every student in need of additional language skills to succeed in an academic environment. Education experts term this mastery of “academic language.”
Among the project’s goals are to shorten the time it takes students to achieve proficiency, to have these students meet grade-level standards in core subjects and to keep them at no greater risk for failure than other students.
The Foundation also hopes the work can serve as a demonstration project for other school districts across California seeking to improve the academic performance of students learning English. The program is designed to provide teachers and administrators with professional development in teaching techniques designed to accelerate these students’ progress.
“There is nothing more important than assuring that all our students have the skills they need to learn,” said Dale Vigil, superintendent of the Hayward Unified School District. “The Hewlett Foundation’s generous help is a sign that outside experts think the district is on the right track.”
English learners are defined as both foreign- and native-born children who speak a language other than English at home and who have difficulty speaking, reading and writing English. In the Hayward district, 52 percent of the student population is Latino, and 34 percent of the district’s students for whom English is not their first language are classified as English learners. Both populations have failed to meet progress targets set by federal No Child Left Behind laws.
The district, the third largest in Alameda County, has faced many challenges in recent years. Of Hayward Unified’s thirty-two schools, sixteen ranked in the lowest 30 percent on statewide measures of student performance last year. Leadership has changed repeatedly, with Vigil the district’s sixth superintendent in five years. A veteran of education reform, Vigil has pledged to stay in Hayward for at least five years.
The Hewlett Foundation’s grant is one of several that foundations have given to the district in the past year. The S. H. Cowell Foundation gave the district $1.3 million to improve four of its highest-poverty schools by hiring teaching coaches for reading and mathematics and a specialist to help assess the students’ academic progress. The Noyce Foundation gave $90,000 for a pilot program in algebraic thinking in the elementary and middle schools. Another $200,000 came from the East Bay Community Foundation.
For Molina, the flurry of new grants and experimentation with English learners is a hopeful sign.
“With the population we have in this district, we can’t ignore the issue,” she said. “We have to move forward. I’m always learning new ideas and strategies. I ask myself why I am teaching. It’s to help these kids.”
About The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation
The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation has been making grants since 1966 to help solve social and environmental problems at home and around the world. The Foundation concentrates its resources on activities in education, the environment, global development, performing arts, philanthropy and population, and makes grants to support disadvantaged communities in the San Francisco Bay Area. A full list of all the Hewlett Foundation’s grants can be found at www.hewlett.org.