Focus School: The American International School of Kingston

Written by: Dania Daley
Date: July 2020

In Jamaica, AISK is the school of choice for children whose families come on ambassadorial or diplomatic duties. Additionally, government contracts also determine the rise and fall of ethnic groups within our school. For example, when the government of Jamaica signed a contract with the French government to build roads, there was a French Unit present at AISK that allowed these students to be taught in their native language as well as to receive instruction in English.

young students working at table
Photo courtesy AIS Kingston

The American International School of Kingston (AISK) has had a steady increase of students for whom English is an additional language and they require services to help them access the curriculum. The EAL program is designed to meet the needs of each student. We create learning plans and monitor students as they progress throughout the year. The plan evolves with the ultimate goal of having students being able to function independently in the mainstream classroom. We were looking for a program that meets the needs of our growing population of about 300 students.

As you walk the halls of our small classrooms you will hear various languages being spoken. The majority of our multilingual learners are Chinese speakers, followed by Spanish and French speakers. Approximately 30% of our families are bilingual and this number has seen a steady increase over the years. It was for this reason that EAL specialist, Keisha LaBeach was eager to find a comprehensive assessment that would be able to meet the needs of students, parents and teachers. She came across WIDA and in 2012 we started our WIDA journey. AISK prides itself in ensuring that EAL teachers are WIDA trained. We use WIDA to assess children’s English proficiency levels twice during the academic year. The results are collated and shared with families, students and teachers. WIDA’s Performance Definitions are very easy to understand, in fact, one of our parents, Mrs. Marques sang her praises for WIDA, explaining that,

“as a family we are able to see where our children are at and where they need to be in order to be considered near native speakers. As a bilingual family we understand that this will take time but with WIDA we can set clear goals and track the girls’ language growth and see their strengths.”

Our team has begun to look at a school wide language policy and we will use the WIDA Guiding Principles of Language Development to explain the science and research behind the approach of teaching multilingual learners.

WIDA’s Essential Actions along with WIDA Standards Framework are used to design professional development workshops that are held at the start of the school year with staff, administrators, families and students. In August, teachers are provided with information on each EAL student and their WIDA levels. WIDA assessment scores, WIDA Can Do Descriptors, Language Development Sheets, Accommodation Plans and a bank comprising strategies and various scaffolds for our ELLs are discussed during our workshop. In order to understand and begin planning for our ELL students we look at where they come from and what cultural and linguistic differences they come with. It is always what students Can Do, in fact, Grade 5 teacher Rachel Silvera has lauded WIDA’s Can Do descriptors “we tend to focus on what students cannot do, instead, we should focus on what ELLs can do and use that as a starting point when planning.” Teachers co plan and use area specific language and vocabulary across the curriculum to ensure that children master the language of instruction with ease.

WIDA resources have impacted student learning in a positive way because it allows students to focus on the skill sets that they bring to the classroom. Students feel more confident when they are able to use the Performance Descriptors to see the language skills they can do. The can do concept that WIDA uses is integral to the success of our EAL program because it galvanizes students into more action, which makes the task of learning in another language less fearful. Students set learning targets that are attainable and measurable. They build on their linguistic assets and they are able to look back at previous tests to see their growth. We came up with a WIDA progress monitoring sheet that not only helps teachers, but more so it helps students see and chart their own growth. WIDA gives examples of various scaffolds that teachers and parents can use in building ELLs confidence and their linguistic skills as they move through the language. At AISK we are able to mark students’ milestones in Speaking, Listening, Reading and Writing and we can compare their strengths, and target specific areas with specific strategies. One good feature of WIDA is that it enables the scaffolding to be comfortably removed without affecting the students' language progress. After all, one would not expect to see a beautifully designed building with scaffoldings still attached.

kingston school students posing outside
Photo courtesy AIS Kingston

At AISK, the success of ELLs is not the sole responsibility of the EAL teacher. Instead, AISK uses an integrated approach to teaching and WIDA facilitates this approach by providing a streamlined transition into the various disciplines. Simply put, WIDA connects us all. We must remember that ELLs come to us with many skills and abilities in their native language. They possess the ability to do grade level or above grade level work. Teachers at AISK use WIDA’s Can Do descriptors when co-planning with EAL teachers to ensure that students transfer their knowledge and skills to their respective additional language classrooms. At AISK, we use many technological systems that allow teachers to work collaboratively whether face-face or online. Plans are shared and we discuss the content objective and the language objective for EAL students. Atlas and PowerSchool are tools which enable us to embed the WIDA Can Do Descriptors. Therefore, teachers are able to personalize or differentiate while they are planning their classes. WIDA is an effective language assessment tool that will move ELLs so that they function effectively in the language beyond the school border.

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