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Almost all students here are refugees — and they speak 16 uncommon languages. How this school makes it work.

(Provided by Rochester International Academy)

(This is the fifth in a series of posts about schools named as winners in the 2015-2016 Schools of Opportunity project. You can find the first post here and the second here. the third here and the fourth here. There are links to all at the bottom of this post.)

If you listen to the school reform debate these days, you would be forgiven for thinking that public schools across the board are failing students and that schools that are struggling can only improve if they fire all of their staff, become a charter school or let the state take them over. It’s just not so.

This is clear in a project called the Schools of Opportunity, launched a few years ago by educators who sought to highlight public high schools that actively seek to close opportunity gaps through 11 research-proven practices and not standardized test scores (which are more a measure of socioeconomic status than anything else).

The project assesses how well schools provide health and psychological support for students, judicious and fair discipline policies, high-quality teacher mentoring programs, outreach to the community, effective student and faculty support systems, and broad and enriched curriculum. Schools submit applications explaining why they believe their school should be recognized.

The project started in 2014 as a pilot program in New York and Colorado, and went national in 2015-2016, with gold and silver winners coming from states including Maryland, Georgia, California and Oregon. It is the brainchild of Kevin Welner, director of the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado at Boulder and a professor specializing in educational policy and law; and Carol Burris, a former award-winning principal in New York who is now executive director of the nonprofit Network for Public Education.

Twenty schools were named as honorees for the 2015-16 school year — eight gold winners and 12 silver — and you can see the list here. This is the fourth in a series of posts I will publish that highlight why each of the schools was chosen to be honored. It is important to note that each school found success in ways that met the needs of their own communities.

To help kids succeed, this rural school gets help from unusual sources. Dentists, for example.

This week’s write-up is about Schools of Opportunity winner Rochester International Academy in Rochester, N.Y.

This post was authored by Kevin Welner and Linda Molner Kelley. Welner is the director of the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado at Boulder and a professor specializing in educational policy and law at the university. Kelley, associate director of the Schools of Opportunity project, is the former assistant dean of teacher education and partnerships and director for outreach and engagement at the University of Colorado at Boulder. In those and her current consulting roles, she has developed numerous K-16 and community programs designed to strengthen learning opportunities for students and teachers in diverse settings. She is also a former high school teacher and administrator in a Denver-area school district.

By Kevin Welner and Linda Molner Kelley

Rochester International Academy (K-12) Rochester, New York
Principal: Mary Andrecolich-Montesano-Diaz
Superintendent: Barbara Deane-Williams
Enrollment: 307
Economically disadvantaged students: 100 percent

Rochester International Academy (RIA) provides a strong transitional program for newly arrived immigrant and refugee students, working in close collaboration with families and community partners. Because Rochester is an official resettlement site for the United Nations, 98 percent of RIA’s students are refugees, many of whom have never before been in a formal school setting. In fact, many of the 16 native languages of RIA’s student fall in the uncommon, “low-incidence” category.

Serving an immigrant population that is also 100 percent economically disadvantaged, RIA has a missionto provide English language learners with a rigorous instructional program that facilitates acquisition of English, subject area knowledge, and academic skills. The school also helps students navigate challenging cultural, social and emotional transitions.

After starting as beginning English language learners, most RIA students exit the program within two years, ready to transition to comprehensive high schools throughout the district that offer full access to college and career preparation programs.

RIA creates and maintains a healthy school culture with strong supports for students and their families. The school actively promotes tolerance and shared understanding of the 30-plus cultures represented at the school, with students and their parents sharing their cultural expertise with the school community.

Three “Language Coaches” who speak most of the students’ home languages serve as interpreters and liaisons to the school and community agencies. The RIA Language Coaches and teachers also make home visits to assist students and families as they navigate the social services and health systems. For instance, they help families with the daily challenges that immigrants often encounter, such as evictions, green cards, job applications, and interpreting mail.

Because the student population comes with different learning needs and is highly mobile — beginning RIA at different times of the year and then moving out of the school as their academic and language skills develop — the school uses a combination of high-quality group instruction and innovative technology appropriate to each student’s level.

Each student has use of an iPad, computer or Chromebook to customize learning, with apps that provide native language support and engage students in hands-on, interactive lessons. The recently overhauled school library includes numerous digital texts in multiple languages with many bilingual supports.

RIA staff members have embraced digital tools to teach and assess their students. They have also created their own English-proficiency assessments and learning materials, all of which reside with other rich student information in school-designed databases. This allows staff to track, share, and improve students’ progress as they move through mixed-age instructional classrooms co-taught by content and English language teachers. Data include education history, assessments, anecdotal notes, conference and feedback notes, home contact notes, and student work samples.

As a result, teachers are able to design instructional plans that target specific student needs. RIA students are grouped in fluid, mixed-age levels and move on quickly as they progress. A teacher meeting room houses data charts and intervention plans that help small groups of teachers analyze student growth and areas of need.

Professional development options for RIA teachers are embedded in the school day and determined by what teachers need. Last year, for example, one instructional area teachers targeted was a desire to improve the ways they used one-on-one technology in their lessons with students. Teachers learned new methods, tried them out, and later followed up in “collegial circles” to collaborate and give each other feedback. In order to make this work, the teachers chose to focus on fewer topics but to repeat and reinforce their learning throughout the year.

An instructional coach works weekly with new teachers, helping them to prepare lessons that are linguistically and content appropriate. Teachers also have opportunities to participate in professional learning communities and to participate in specialized workshops and classes. In addition, the staff regularly studies the cultural backgrounds of RIA’s immigrant groups, using the students, their families, and other government materials as resources.

“Our curriculum has to encompass the three A’s:Academics, Acclimation and Acculturation and our arms have to extend beyond our school,” said Principal Mary Andrecolich-Montesano-Diaz. “The School of Opportunity recognition gives all of us at RIA the affirmation that my staff so richly deserves, and we are very grateful. We are also very happy that because of this recognition, what we do every day at RIA will be shared with others.”

Meeting immigrant students and families where they are and supporting them on their paths to real educational opportunities and a better life is the hallmark of Rochester International Academy. The school accomplishes this by integrating innovative technology and assessments as part of the instruction that advances student language and academic learning in a safe environment, and by supporting the committed teachers responsible for student progress.

RIA serves as an outstanding model for linguistically diverse schools serving recent immigrants and has earned its designation as a gold School of Opportunity.

To help kids succeed, this rural school gets help from unusual sources. Dentists, for example.

This high-poverty school succeeds by focusing on adventure, the arts and project-based learning

How one school created a ‘safe, comfortable place’ for students and teachers

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