Pulling apart the programs
April 22, 2021
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.”
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.
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.