School Turns English Learners Into Top Achievers

By Daniel de Vise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 19, 2008

Highland Elementary School in Montgomery County, which won a coveted Blue Ribbon yesterday from the Maryland State Department of Education, stands out among public schools in the Maryland suburbs for two reasons.

It ranks first among those schools in the number of economically disadvantaged students who perform at advanced levels on statewide tests, a measure of its accomplishments. And it ranks second in percentage of students who have limited English proficiency, a measure of its challenges.

The Silver Spring school is one of six in Maryland to earn the Blue Ribbon, an award that generally goes to a handful of schools each year. To qualify, a school must have test scores that rank among the top 10 percent in the state. A few schools, including Highland, are chosen for showing dramatic improvement with a population of disadvantaged students.

"Highland Elementary is a remarkable turnaround story," said Montgomery school board President Shirley Brandman (At Large).

Other Blue Ribbons went to Southern High School in Anne Arundel County, Western High School in Baltimore, Seventh District Elementary School in Baltimore County, Hammond Middle School in Howard County and Stephen Decatur Middle School in Worcester County.

Most schools awarded Blue Ribbons by their state go on to receive an equivalent honor the next year from the U.S. Education Department.

Highland Elementary is emblematic of the changing demographics of Montgomery. Three-fifths of its 470 students have limited English proficiency, a percentage exceeded only by neighboring New Hampshire Estates Elementary among Maryland schools. Such concentrations of English-learning students were unknown in Montgomery schools until the early part of this decade.

The typical Highland student is a U.S. citizen born into an immigrant home where English is not spoken. Their families are mostly from Central and South American countries.

"You don't need English here to go to the bank or to go to the Giant," Principal Raymond Myrtle said in a 2007 Washington Post profile of the school. Myrtle yesterday described the award as "an extraordinary tribute to our students, to their families and to our great staff, all of whom have played a very important part in our success and share in this wonderful accomplishment."

The school's population of English learners has increased fivefold since the late 1990s. Highland's administration and faculty didn't immediately adjust to the change. Five years ago, the school was threatened with "restructuring" by the state education department after repeated failure on state tests. In 2003, just five of 53 English learners passed state tests in reading.

Many students were arriving at Highland unable to read or speak fluently in any language. Myrtle and the staff responded by emphasizing pre-kindergarten and Head Start, which was expanded to a full-day program last year. The school positioned itself as the center of its community, offering weekend soccer tournaments, English and computer classes for parents, and an array of other community services, from housing assistance to mental health counseling.

In classrooms, Myrtle implemented a particularly strenuous model of the immersion program English for Speakers of Other Languages.

This year, 91 of 98 English learners passed the state reading test.

Many students didn't just pass. A Post analysis of 2008 test data for 427 elementary schools in the Maryland suburbs found that Highland had the largest number of economically disadvantaged students rated "advanced," the highest of three performance levels on the Maryland School Assessments. Forty-five students from low-income families scored at advanced levels in math, and 88 scored that well in reading.

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