Helping Districts Navigate Their Changing Populations

By Stephaney Jones-Vo, ESL/Diversity Consultant

Sudanese Author Inspires Indianola K-8 Staff

Abeny Kucha Tiir (middle) spoke to Indianola K-8 teachers about the struggles and triumphs she has endured in her life. She is shown with Mark Timmerman, principal, and Chelsea Peno, ESL teacher, at Emerson Elementary.

Abeny Kucha Tiir (middle) spoke to Indianola K-8 teachers about the struggles and triumphs she has endured in her life. She is shown with Mark Timmerman, principal, and Chelsea Peno, ESL teacher, at Emerson Elementary.

Emerson Elementary principal Mark Timmerman knows the number of English language learners (ELLs) in Indianola is growing and teachers are asking about how best to include them in their core instruction. So when ESL teacher Chelsea Peno suggested bringing in a speaker with a powerful story about overcoming tragedy in another land to make a new life in the U.S., Timmerman jumped on the opportunity.

Peno heard Abeny Kucha Tiir speak this fall at a Drake University/Heartland AEA English as a Second Language (ESL) partnership event and was moved by her story. Tiir, a survivor of war and trauma in Sudan who immigrated to the U.S., recently published the book Tears of a Mother, describing her journey from Sudan to the U.S. The district turned to Heartland AEA to collaborate on bringing Tiir’s powerful story to Indianola’s K-8 teachers.

Stephaney Jones-Vo, ESL/Diversity Consultant, helped bring Tiir to Indianola, and on November 7, Indianola’s K-8 staff learned of the challenges, dangers and eventual triumphs experienced by this survivor of war, suffering and unspeakable obstacles. Using personal examples and even sprinkling in humor, Tiir shared her incredible story with the teachers. Her book, a first-person account by a woman, represents a breakthrough from the more prevalent male accounts of the period, such as those of the Lost Boys of Sudan.

Jones-Vo, who is also conducting a semester-long “Engaging All Students Using SIOP and Differentiation” course at Emerson Elementary, said, “Hearing first-person stories with the immediacy of details and emotions helps to build understanding of what refugees bring with them. Knowing that, we can empathize and better tailor what goes on in the classroom in terms of instruction and assessment. In addition, such a presentation informs educators of needs that persist in a community. For example, if there are food security issues, those needs will need to be met before real learning can take place.”

She went on to say, “Developing a compassionate understanding of students from other countries who are learning English is a prerequisite to meeting their needs in the classroom. As teachers left the auditorium on November 7 to participate in district parent-teacher conferences, some commented that it was a good way to begin the conferences, freshly focused on what really matters and united in a simple desire to make the world a better place.”

Indianola staff also had these comments about Tiir’s presentation to teachers:
“We have recently welcomed multiple Somalian refugee students at all grade levels to our school system,” principal Timmerman said. “This opportunity for our staff to hear of Abeny’s very difficult journey was very engaging and meaningful for our teachers. Her presentation shows how resilience can propel families through overwhelming struggle and heartbreak. It really helped us keep things in perspective in the world of education, yet, Abeny’s message was one of hope and the belief that education was a vehicle that helped her family succeed and thrive here in America.”

“The guest speaker was very engaging, and I know many times during her presentation you could have heard a pin drop,” Jo Mort, 5th grade teacher at Wilder Elementary, said. “Her life experiences are captivating and will leave imprints on our hearts. Thanks again for all the time you put into making this worthwhile.”

“It is difficult to understand the struggles refugee families face before coming to the United States,” ESL teacher Peno said. “Since nearly half of Indianola’s English language learners are refugee students, it is vital that we create an awareness of their experiences. Our K-8 staff was deeply moved by Abeny Kucha Tiir’s incredible story of faith, hope and determination. Her story will be remembered and her book, Tears of a Mother, will inspire all who have the opportunity to read it.”

Ames Elementary Teachers Immersed in PD About ELLs

Pictured are the men who spoke during a recent panel presentation provided at Ames High School during professional development for all six Ames elementary schools.

Pictured are the men who spoke during a recent panel presentation provided at Ames High School during professional development for all six Ames elementary schools.

Following a needs assessment based on the increasing English language learner (ELL) population in Ames elementary schools, Yonas Michael, Director of Alternative Learning Programs for the district, has led Ames teachers to learn more about this group of students. He approached Heartland AEA ELL/Diversity consultants, Stephaney Jones-Vo and Pat Latham, who designed and have been delivering the course “Engaging English Learners and Other Diverse Learners in the Iowa Core” for two schools at a time every Wednesday afternoon during teacher professional development time.

Focusing on the use of English as a Second Language (ESL)-specific data to inform both instruction and assessment, teachers are learning about the need to relate leveled resources to that data and to differentiate instruction and assessment based on what students can actually do linguistically. A focus of the course also includes collaboration as a means to expand capacity and meet the needs of the fastest growing demographic in Iowa schools, English language learners.

This fall the Heartland AEA consultants conducted two three-hour sessions, flip-flopping their session with a concurrent session made up of a panel of ESL parents who are also refugees from Eritrea, Sudan, Iraq and Sierra Leone. This informative panel shared personal stories and expanded understanding about the challenges faced by newcomers to Iowa who are recent refugees, such as the obvious language barrier and lack of opportunity to learn English, food security issues, lack of jobs, furniture needs, transportation and reduced length of time for medical support. Teachers were also invited to ask questions.

“Professional development designed to meet needs of English learners must be grounded in understanding underlying culture and a full range of individual student characteristics,” Jones-Vo said. “This is the foundation for applying differentiated strategies to instruction and assessment, while taking into consideration what students are actually equipped to comprehend and produce. Our goal is to fully engage ELLs in the Iowa Core while they learn English, thereby benefiting from the simultaneous development of English language development as well as Core content knowledge, skills and abilities.”

Following the presentation by the panel, many teachers asked how they could help support the communities represented by the panel. As a result of their interest, teachers brought voluntary donations of non-food stamp items (e.g., bath soap, shampoo, diapers, laundry detergent, dish soap) to their December PD sessions to share with newcomer communities in need.

“Elementary teachers in Ames were fortunate to participate in a professional development opportunity in which a panel of refugees spoke about the personal journey they and their family took to come to the United States,” Michael said. “The panelists offered important insights about what life as a refugee is like in the United States. The experience opened teachers’ eyes to specific strategies they can use to help students and families eliminate barriers, reduce stress and transition more smoothly into our schools.”

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The Road Less Traveled: One Student’s Struggle with Learning

For some students, the path to academic success is an uphill climb. Learn how Nicki Schaumberg, a recent graduate of Forest City CSD, partnered with her teachers and AEA 267 staff members to overcome her challenges and go on to win several scholarships before heading to college. Nicki is a shining example of the amazing things that happen when Iowa’s Area Education Agencies partner with local schools.

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Northwest AEA/Hunt school success: Mom expresses gratitude for teamwork

* This letter was sent to Northwest AEA staff. It has been reprinted with permission by Jennifer Carley, mother of Phoenix. The photo of Phoenix and Jennifer was submitted by the family.

Dear Ms. Jungers & all Hunt Staff who have worked with Phoenix (which I’m sure is almost everyone),Phoenix_9C32D19124A88

I’d like to take a moment to convey a sincere thank you for all of the help you have extended to Phoenix, myself & our family. As many of you know, when Phoenix started kindergarten this year, he was disruptive, uncooperative, had poor communication skills & was sometimes violent. While we still have our bad days from time to time, I feel they are much more infrequent episodes. (In major part thanks to the extreme teamwork I’ve seen displayed at Hunt School). Phoenix’s improvement continues to impress me every day! I am proud to say that my son is a Hunt Tiger & that this school truly does care about the success & well being of their students.

 Thank you all again for your dedication & patience with Phoenix. Unlike the past, he loves going to school now and tells me daily about the new things he learns. =) Even with some bumps in the road, I feel that with our at home and at school “power team,” we can continue to guide Phoenix down the correct path.

With all of my gratitude and respect,

Jennifer Carley

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Alex Betz: A Shining Example of the Power of High Expectations

Betz_146B96F2C9799Much has been written and discussed about the importance of having high expectations for all kids. While many quotes could be used to describe the story of Alex Betz, perhaps the one that hits closest is from George Bernard Shaw: “People who say it cannot be done should not interrupt those who are doing it.”

In May, Alex Betz graduated with honors from Southeast Technical College in Sioux Falls, S.D. – something that seemed impossible just a few years ago. With the support, patience and persistence of his family, teachers and AEA staff, Alex is living proof of the importance of high expectations and never settling for the easy road.

Alex was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome, which is on the autism spectrum, at the end of fourth grade (age 10). Because the Spencer school district offered more specialized programs in upper elementary, Alex transferred from his home school district to Spencer.

His school career was an extremely rough road at times as Alex was described as a very bright young man without many social graces.  He often spoke his mind and told teachers, administration and peers that they or the things they were doing were “stupid or dumb.” (This was especially true with homework or anything that he considered unnecessary.) Alex also had trouble with personal space issues, and at times, with authority.

Diane Nelsen, Transition Coordinator with Prairie Lakes AEA, began her journey with the Betz family when Alex was in sixth grade and getting ready to move on to middle school.  Transition planning was going to be extremely important to them.  In working with David Hoye, an AEA School Social Worker, they learned that Alex was extremely bright and really needed limited supports for learning.  After a very tense eighth grade meeting, it was agreed that Alex would use resource room services and Carol Heissel, a Spencer high school special education teacher, become Alex’s case manager.

“Throughout it all, he had wonderful parental support,” Diane said. “His mother, Carma, is one of the truly greatest advocates I have ever known in my 30 years in this field!  She was there all the time to remind people of his strengths, to make sure his accommodations were being followed and to advocate for regular education as much as possible!”

The struggles didn’t stop at high school, and Alex made many advances. He continued to excel and demonstrate his wonderful mathematical abilities while in high school but had struggled with many of his other classes, especially those for which he saw no purpose. As his junior year approached, the team began thinking ahead to advanced post secondary planning.

Many at the high school level thought a 4+ program was the only, and best, option for him. However, Alex was determined that he could get a four-year degree in engineering and maybe more!  And so the team embarked on this new mission – to find the right post-secondary match for him. During the summer of his junior year, Nelsen spent hours on the computer exploring potential programs and eventually landed on Southeast Technical College in Sioux Falls, S.D.

What happened next truly embodies the phrase “going the extra mile” that so many educators demonstrate. That summer, Nelsen traveled to Sioux Falls for a regular doctor visit. While on that trip, she carved out time to visit the college, the program and meet the staff to discuss Alex’s needs.

“I was impressed with their programs and the fact that they had a direct connection to South Dakota State University so if Alex was able, he could go on to a four-year college relatively seamlessly,” Nelsen said. “Transitions had never been easy for Alex so my next big job was to sell it to Alex, who wanted to go right to a university program without any assistance or supports. His parents were very positive about this opportunity and my work with Alex and that made a big difference.”

As Alex entered his senior year, the Prairie Lakes AEA Transition Department was involved in a State Professional Development Grant pilot project that focused equipping students with the skills so they could advocate for their needs and interests. Heissel was one of the teachers involved in this project. Together, they devised a plan to help ease Alex’s transition to college. Supplying him with a flip cam, the family set off for a college visit where he recorded videos, interviewed instructors and really just ran with this project. He used this video to “tell” his high school teachers what his college expectations were and how they could better help him prepare for college.

Alex_In May, Alex graduated, with honors, with an associate of science degree in mechanical engineering technology. And because he wants to earn a mechanical engineering degree, he is now taking classes at South Dakota State University in Brookings, S.D. This type of engineering is in the highest demand across the country.

“Alex wasn’t an easy student to have in classes, and he wasn’t even much fun in the hallways at times,” Diane said. “But we didn’t let those things stop us and I am so grateful we didn’t. I am even more grateful Alex didn’t! I am humbled by mom’s thanks. The point of all of this we joined forces to push with Alex so that he became the best he could be.”

Nelsen received a touching thank-you from Carma about a month before Alex was set to graduate and some of it is included here:

“Thank you seems so meager for all the years of support you have given us with the challenges we have faced with him.  He can’t wait to go to the high school and show off pictures & his degree after graduation.  He is absolutely giddy about moving to Brookings!  How he has matured and accomplished all of this with no support system at college.  He had it available but wanted to try without and has been very successful!  We are truly blessed!

Feel free to share this e-mail and or the great news with others. These kids will be the ones to run our world soon!  We are very thankful for the supports the AEA has given to these kids to succeed and the belief they have shown in them.”

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AEAs Earn Praise for Technology Work With Schools

Iowa’s Area Education Agencies earned praise in an article in the 2013 issue of Perspectives: A Journal of Research and Opinion About Educational Service Agencies for their innovative statewide use of the the Clarity product to help schools with technology integration.

The article, titled “How 21st Century Service Agencies Create 21st Century Schools,” was written by  Rob Mancabelli, CEO and Co-Founder of BrightBytes, the company behind Clarity.

Perspectives is the Association of Educational Service Agencies’ annual journal reflecting needs, policies, research and other issues affecting educational service agencies.  Click here to read the article.

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New Early Literacy Efforts Help All Students Become Skilled Readers

c4kIowa’s Area Education Agencies (AEAs) are pleased to be part of a new statewide effort designed to help ALL of our students read proficiently by the end of third grade.

In September, AEA consultants joined with over 600 educators from across Iowa in working together to put in place a practice known as Response to Intervention (RtI). This is a statewide effort through Collaborating for Iowa’s Kids, a partnership among Iowa’s AEAs, school districts and the Iowa Department of Education.

RtI is a proven practice that helps educators identify students who are struggling readers and then offers interventions to help them improve. Teachers can adapt how they are teaching to fit each student’s individual needs and then monitor the student’s progress to identify what is working. About 10 percent of the state’s schools will roll out RtI this fall.

Roughly one in four fourth-graders scored below proficient on the state reading test in 2012. Students who don’t read proficiently in third grade are four times more likely to drop out of school, according to a 2011 report by the Baltimore-based Annie E. Casey Foundation.

Iowa Department of Education Director Brad Buck welcomed participants to the workshop.

“What would it mean for Iowa if every child finishing third grade could read at or above the third-grade level?” Buck asked. “We’re at a pivotal time. We agree we must dramatically improve. I say that Iowa’s education is good as it ever has been – it’s just that other states have passed us on some academic measures.”

Through the weeklong workshop, educators learned three key elements to RtI as to how it provides a snapshot of the student’s current pre-literacy skills.

1. Assessments to ensure that students are ready to learn when they start kindergarten
2. Assessments in kindergarten through sixth grade that will continue to monitor each student’s progress
3. Making decisions based on data

AEAs will continue to provide training and coaching as the process is implemented. We look forward to sharing more stories with you as we move forward.

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Districts Make a Difference With Multi-tiered Systems of Support

Carol Price (Professional Learning & Leadership Consultant/NE) and Stephanie Ver Helst, PCM Community School District Director of Continuous Improvement and Student Services, were selected to present at the 2013 IDEA Leadership Conference in Washington, D. C., July 28-31. The topic on which they presented was Secondary Response to Intervention (RtI): Early Warning System in Action. Their presentation included information on using multiple sources of data in order to best meet the needs of all learners, strengthen outcomes of all students and prevent the risk of students dropping out of high school.

Carol Price (Professional Learning & Leadership Consultant/NE) and Stephanie Ver Helst, PCM Community School District Director of Continuous Improvement and Student Services, were selected to present at the 2013 IDEA Leadership Conference in Washington, D. C., July 28-31. The topic on which they presented was Secondary Response to Intervention (RtI): Early Warning System in Action. Their presentation included information on using multiple sources of data in order to best meet the needs of all learners, strengthen outcomes of all students and prevent the risk of students dropping out of high school.

By Carol Price & Stephanie Ver Helst

In the fall of 2012, two Heartland AEA Professional Learning & Leadership Consultants, Carol Price and Stephanie Ver Helst, embarked on a journey with high school building leadership teams from the Prairie City-Monroe (PCM) and Lynnville-Sully (L-S) school districts.

Both districts were deeply entrenched in using the IDM (Instructional Decision Making) model in their elementary grades, and both were making academic progress: PCM in grades K-5 and L-S in grades K-8. In fact, L-S fourth graders scored 100% proficiency on the Iowa Assessments last year.

Administrators in both districts wanted to develop a comprehensive, proactive and responsive multi-tiered system of academic and behavioral supports that identifies and provides assistance to students at risk for not having their needs met at the high school level.

Price and Ver Helst, who is now the Director of Continuous Improvement and Support Services for the PCM district, developed a year-long course of study that included full-day professional development classes about multi-tiered systems of support, half-day district-led work sessions involving implementation and roll out to school teams and full staff meetings where teacher-leaders shared their work with their peers.
Reflecting on the implications of a multi-tiered system of academic and behavioral supports to her district, Jane Babcock, PCM superintendent, said, “The system provides focus for our instructional programming. Not only does it provide focus for those students that struggle, it provides focus for students who we need to enrich. The ultimate goal was for PCM to address all students’ needs.”

One of the first tasks that proved critical was the alignment of the continuous improvement process to the systems work in the districts. As in the continuous improvement model where one assesses, plans, implements and evaluates, a multi-tiered system of supports must operate the same way. Outcomes of this alignment resulted in the development of a comprehensive assessment guide, implementation of universal screenings, application of an early warning system and a system-wide approach to behavioral competencies that are embedded in the employability standards of the 21st Century Learning Skills in the Iowa Core.

“We were able to quickly align our instruction to the Iowa Core,” said Scott Bridges, PCM High School Principal, who reports that implementing a multi-tiered system of supports has done much for his building. “The early warning system helps us to get a handle on kids who need assistance and get them specific guided instruction.”

The work begun at PCM and L-S is a long way from being finished. This year the universal screening process and the early warning system are being refined for reading. In the future, the intent is to include universal screening for mathematics and behavior, as well as to examine high school schedules to include the space and time necessary for interventions within the multi-tiered system of supports. This work also includes continued efforts for vertical alignment of data-based decision making around full implementation of the Iowa Core standards and continuous improvement from PK through 12th grade.

Professional learning communities (PLCs) will continue their work around curriculum alignment to the Iowa Core and using data to drive instruction and intervention for all students. District and building leadership teams will continue to plan and reflect around professional learning to ensure a positive impact on student achievement. Data will continue to be the driving force for all systems work and individual student success.

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