WSS investigates the long-term effects of separating students into different learning programs. (Xiaoyi Zhu)
WSS investigates the long-term effects of separating students into different learning programs.

Xiaoyi Zhu

The division decision

With the ICCSD offering the Extended Learning Program, English Language Learners program and special education program, students are divided into learning sections from a young age which results in contrasting academic and social experiences.

April 23, 2021

As your classmates settle down into their cozy nooks and crannies, the noise in the once chatter-filled room dwindles down to near silence, with the exception of an occasional page flip. So drawn into your mystery book, the sudden shuffling of students “quietly” getting up startles you. They whisper loudly to the teacher and leave the room, giggling and chatting, headed off to their ELP activities.

From a young age, students find themselves sectioned off into cohorts. Grade levels, friend groups, clubs, teams and hobbies are just a few of the different communities that make up one’s identity. As students get older, a new section is added: learning programs. These include the Extended Learning Program, English Language Learners program and the special education program, which can each shape how a student develops.  

 

Students and sectioning

The length of time a student is a part of any of these specialized programs varies from person to person. Some individuals join their respective programs as young as elementary school, while others are introduced at the secondary level.

Razan Babikir ’22 joined Seminar class, the junior high ELP equivalent, in 8th grade. Before coming to Iowa, she was in the ELL program for a brief amount of time in another state. She has noticed the division of students into educational programs can significantly impact students socially. 

“There’s the quite obvious social hierarchy of a middle or high school,” Babikir said. “If you were in ELL … you’re going way to the bottom of that, but if you’re in an advanced classroom like an ELP program … then they’re not as likely to treat you like they would with the ELL program.” 

When Babikir went to Northwest Junior High, she found out about ELP from her peers. Babikir asked her counselor about the program, but she felt the response she received was rather discouraging. Prior to checking Babikir’s grades, her counselor told her that she wouldn’t be able to be in the program. Knowing that she should be qualified for ELP, Babikir asked the counselor to check her academic history, which eventually led to her acceptance into Seminar.

“At first, I was definitely surprised [and] kind of taken aback,” Babikir said. “It was a very weird situation because at first I was confused, but then I was like, ‘Oh, so this is what I’m gonna have to deal with for my entire life.’”

[The reason you would be in] ELL is just because you can’t exactly properly speak English, but ELP is because you’re [an] academically advanced student. You could be both.”

— Razan Babikir '22

Babikir believes there are several misconceptions about students in the programs.  

[The reason you would be in] ELL is just because you can’t exactly properly speak English, but ELP is because you’re [an] academically advanced student. You could be both,” Babikir said. “A lot of kids don’t really get that, and they think that immediately if you’re in ELL class, you’re just not as smart as everyone else around you.” 

West High students in ELP receive emails with resources about educational opportunities, such as scholarships and support for college applications. For Babikir, this guidance has been beneficial. 

“I definitely think I was given more opportunities being in ELP,” Babikir said. “[Without ELP] if I had wanted to look at a scholarship or something that would give me an advantage, I’d have to go to the counselor and ask about specific things, or I’d have to be at home googling furiously in the middle of the night … I definitely think [ELP] is helping me further my education in high school and even afterwards.”

Although ELP students receive these supports exclusively, West High ELP Coordinator Kelly Bergmann says any student has access to these resources. 

Anything we do in ELP is something that your school counselor can do for you. All we have to know is that you have a need that isn’t being met.”

— Kelly Bergmann, ELP coordinator

“Anything we do in ELP is something that your school counselor can do for you,” Bergmann said. “All we have to know is that you have a need that isn’t being met.”

Talyia Ochola ’22, an ELP student, feels students in ELP are given extra resources that are not as beneficial to them as they would be to other students.

“It’s not really anything that helps with your learning. It’s more so if you’re already doing well in school and already succeeding and learning well, then it’s just showing you how to continue and your [future] options, more so than actually helping you learn,” Ochola said. 

Because of this, Ochola believes there are still improvements needed to make the program more inclusive.

“[There needs to be] more diversity within the upperclassmen talking to us, because that was definitely mostly white people and then a couple of Asian girls, but that was really it,” Ochola said. “It wasn’t representative of the people in ELP at all.”

Pulling apart the programs

In the ICCSD, every elementary school has an ELP program. All second graders are required to take the Cognitive Abilities Test, also known as the CogAt Screener, and receive a certain score to be eligible for the program. 

To enroll in ELP services at the high school level, students must meet the criteria in at least three of the six requirements: GPA, advanced classes, Iowa Statewide Assessment of Student Progress scores, national standardized test scores, teacher recommendations and portfolio. 

According to the district ELP coordinator Julie Ewert-Hays, the purpose of ELP is to fit the needs of a student’s ability level. 

“The program is to really provide that curriculum for kids who are thinking [at a high] level and provide them a chance to work with other kids who are on the same intellectual level or academic level,” Ewert-Hays said. “It’s really about equity. If we have kids who are thinking and learning at that rate … we need to serve them just like we need to serve everybody else. It’s just a different program.”

The goal of school is to help every student reach their full potential, and I think that those programs can aid in that process.”

— Mitchell Kelly, professor of educational psychology

Mitchell Kelly, a professor of educational psychology at the University of Iowa, says these learning programs are necessary for students to succeed in the classroom. 

“I think the goal of school is to help every student reach their full potential, and I think that those programs can aid in that process,” Kelly said. “I don’t see any other way to do it without letting people fall through the cracks.”

For Anah Austin, a former Seminar teacher at Northwest Junior High, it was difficult to adjust her teaching style for ELP students at first.  

“The first year I taught it, I made a lot of mistakes,” Austin said. “I think I was getting into a lot of the stereotypes of ELP students, and so what I did was assign a whole lot of work for the students to complete independently, and I quickly realized that was not going to work.”

To combat this, Austin started to apply an inquiry model to the curriculum, where students’ learning is more reliant on personal exploration and discussion. She noticed this method was better suited for her ELP students. 

“I think that model benefits a lot of students. Just by the nature of helping students come to find answers to their own questions and knowing how to do that, and that’s a really beneficial skill,” Austin said.

They learn to be a little bit less black and white in their thinking, [and] they feel more comfortable living in the gray.”

— Anah Austin, former Seminar teacher

According to Austin, Seminar prepares students for success in high school courses. 

They learn to be a little bit less black and white in their thinking, [and] they feel more comfortable living in the gray,” Austin said.

Another program at West High is ELL, which stands for English Language Learners. This program is focused on giving students who are learning English the resources they need to be successful in high school. According to the district’s website, this program serves about 1,750 students in kindergarten through 12th grade.

“They have a legal right to be provided equitable access to the same content as the general population,” said ELL teacher Cat Haxton. “There’s a real significant educational and legal rationale for offering these classes to our students.” 

To officially exit the ELL program, students must demonstrate proficiency in English on the English Language Proficiency Assessment 21, also known as ELPA21. However, the test is only administered once each school year, usually in the spring. Haxton believes this testing process can make it difficult for students to exit the program.

“It’s a difficult task to pass out of,” Haxton said. “Some students, particularly at the advanced level, find themselves with enough English proficiency to be successful in their classes and be successful in life, but they struggle to pass that stupid test. In that case, a lot of our advanced students will have their parents waive them out of ELL.”

According to Exauce Kiakanda ’23, an ELL student, passing a certain ELL proficiency level does not occur very often. 

“Not everybody changes levels after they take the test. Many people stay at the same level. Even my teacher told us it’s okay to stay at the same level because [there are] only five levels. Most people stay at the same level for two years or three years,” Kiakanda said. 

Despite this, Haxton feels the ELL program is essential to ensure English learners are less overwhelmed in the mainstream classroom.

“[ELL] students can feel very intimidated because the students are mainly English-speaking and are able to raise their hand and offer very eloquent and sophisticated answers that ELL students might struggle to produce,” Haxton said. “There’s kind of an intimidation factor in mainstream classes that is really taken away in sheltered classes because they feel the comfort of being in a class surrounded by ELL students just like themselves that are going through the same experiences.” 

Haxton recognizes the difficulty for ELL students to translate and then comprehend the concepts themselves.

“When you’re learning every class in a language that’s not native to you, it adds an additional level of processing difficulty,” Haxton said. “They’re taking content in English, trying to translate it into their first language in their head and then trying to produce output in a language that is not native to them.”

In addition to these two programs, there is special education. The goal of special education in the ICCSD is to provide appropriate educational opportunities for students with a diverse range of learning abilities and needs. This is done through collaboration between special education and the district’s general education program to extend learning services to those who need it.

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act entitles all students to a public education entirely free of charge and in a nonrestrictive environment. To do this, guardians of students that qualify meet with a team of professionals to develop goals, determine placement, make any program or testing modifications and determine any other services a student may need to be successful. These decisions are recorded in the student’s Individualized Education Plan, which must be followed in accordance with federal law.

Sectioning impacts

While these learning programs can affect students’ education, there are also many social and emotional impacts that come with sectioning — both positive and negative.

It’s more important what you do where you’re at than where you’re at.”

— Paul Breitbach, guidance counselor

“We want them to challenge themselves, but we also want them to design a schedule to help them be successful along with having a balance [so] that you still have time just to be a teenager. And that’s hard,” said Guidance Counselor Paul Breitbach. “I’m a firm believer that you can go anywhere and get a great education. The line I use [with] students is that it’s more important what you do where you’re at than where you’re at.” 

While students can find success outside or within the programs, Kelly believes that separating students can have long-term effects.

“I think all students should interact with all students at some point in their schooling experiences,” Kelly said. “Once you get out of school, you interact with all types of people.”

West High’s motto, “where excellence is a tradition,” speaks to many of its opportunities and programs that excel in their respective fields.

“I think one of the great things about our school is we set high expectations, and we challenge students at the same time. This may sound odd, [but] that’s also one of the things that sometimes is a negative,” Breitbach said. “I’ve seen students, for lack of better words, kind of get sucked into the vortex.”

For Molly Abraham, West High assistant principal and former special education teacher, the school culture has become more inclusive during her years at West.   

“When I first started here in 1984, it wasn’t as good,” Abraham said. “I don’t see kids getting teased for looking different or for not being able to do this or that. West High kids have stepped up to the plate as far as kids with disabilities, and that’s one thing I really respect about West.”

Special education teacher Steve Merkle echoes these sentiments and believes there is a positive environment for special education students at West High. 

“I have never felt like the special ed kids in West High were dealt any more disrespect than any kid or any group of kids,” Merkle said. “I think maybe even our special ed department gets more respect. We have programs like Best Buddies [and]  some of the neatest kids I’ve ever met have come to my classroom just to be student helpers.”

A step further

Educators in America began using standardized testing in 1838 to measure the achievements of students, according to the National Education Association. Since then, this has become a common practice across the world for measuring intelligence. However, Austin believes standardized tests don’t always accurately measure someone’s knowledge, but rather the resources they had access to in preparation.

“You could argue that standardized assessments are a little more fair … but we know historically that standardized tests traditionally rank students who are middle class, upper class, white [higher],” Austin said. “There’s a whole lot of reasons for that that aren’t the fault of the district, but we also have a responsibility to consider that when we’re thinking about which students have access to receiving these services.”

Alex Casillas, a principal research psychologist at ACT, believes standardized tests themselves may not be the only reason students of marginalized communities sometimes struggle when taking them. 

“Standardized tests are not ‘the cause’ that is disadvantaging students,” Casillas said. “The educational system as a whole is not sufficiently preparing entire groups of students, with historically underserved groups often bearing the biggest burden of this lack of preparation.”

One solution that Casillas proposes is to not replace tests altogether, but to supplement them with measures of social and emotional learning. 

“Instead of focusing so much effort on getting rid of tests, we should focus those efforts on ensuring that people from underrepresented backgrounds are given true opportunities — not just access — that can maximize their likelihood of success,” Casillas said. 

“Standardized tests are not ‘the cause’ that is disadvantaging students,” Casillas said. “The educational system as a whole is not sufficiently preparing entire groups of students, with historically underserved groups often bearing the biggest burden of this lack of preparation.”

One solution that Casillas proposes is to not replace tests altogether, but to supplement them with measures of social and emotional learning. 

“Instead of focusing so much effort on getting rid of tests, we should focus those efforts on ensuring that people from underrepresented backgrounds are given true opportunities — not just access — that can maximize their likelihood of success,” Casillas said. 

Austin recognizes there is always room for improvement and is currently examining the district’s grading process and standards to better fit students’ needs.

“The district is really trying hard to do this right now,” Austin said. “These conversations are happening, but [we need to] think about not only consistency, but how our biases impact grading and our understanding of knowledge.”

To combat this stigma, the program changed the name from “Talented and Gifted” to the Extended Learning Program when it was first introduced in the district. According to Ewert-Hays, the program hopes to eliminate the stereotypes that come with ELP. 

“One of my biggest goals was to dispel that elite attitude that a lot of people have about ELP,” Ewert-Hays said. “I’ve worked very hard to kind of take that away because that’s something that has been in the past, I’d like that to go away. They just need something different, that’s all.” 

To improve the program, Bergmann believes there should be more funding for ELP in the future. 

“There are a lot of things that as a school counselor I could be able to do for these kids, but given time constraints and all the other hats that school counselors also have to wear to meet the needs of kids, there just isn’t a way,” Bergmann said. “If [ELP coordinator] was my only job, I just can’t imagine the possibilities of the things that we could do.”

Babikir hopes the programs can grow in a way that meets all students’ needs. 

“I think that the school should offer more learning programs to supplement their students’ education,” Babikir said. “They should also be way more transparent about these programs and make sure every single student knows that these programs are an option.”

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