Creating a Culture of Learning for All Students with the SIOP® Model

Jefferson County, Alabama

“It’s not fairy dust. It’s just best practices — best practices that work with all students.” — Lari Valtierra, Director of English as a Second Language

One of the biggest challenges educators face is teaching in a way that serves the unique needs of each and every student while keeping them all on track with the core curriculum. It can be especially challenging when there are students in the classroom with different learning needs who are also learning English as a second or even third language. The educators at Jefferson County School District, however, believe that they have found the key – the SIOP® Model.

SIOP, which stands for Sheltered Instruction Observation Protocol, is an instructional framework that helps educators integrate language learning into everyday instruction and make grade-level content accessible to all students.

“Everything we need to reach every child is embedded in the SIOP framework,” said Lari Valtierra, the director of English as a second language at Jefferson County Public Schools, which over the past two decades has seen the number of English learners grow from around 200 students to more than 3,000 today. “And that, I think, is one of the reasons it's been successful.”

SIOP has helped Lari fulfill her mission to ensure that each teacher in the district has the tools and training to be able to provide the same quality instruction to their English learners (ELs) that their other students receive.

Jefferson County School students

“For me, the goal is equitable access for all of our students to all educational opportunities. What that means for our students who do not speak English is that the teachers need to know how to meet their needs so they all have access to the curriculum,” said Lari, who discovered the benefits of SIOP go beyond just helping ELs.

She and her team realized that this teaching framework also supported students with other needs and challenges by helping teachers create a classroom culture where all the students felt safe to ask questions, participate in healthy discourse, and actively participate in their learning. This ulitmately led to accelerated graduation rates, increased math and reading scores, and students who are engaged in their learning.

“It’s not fairy dust. It’s just best practices — best practices that work with all students,” said Lari.

Adopting a New Instruction Framework to Benefit a Growing EL Population

SIOP® Professional Learning was introduced in Jefferson County in 2014 at the Rudd Middle School, one of the 57 schools in the district. Rudd was identified as underperforming because of low scores due to a rapidly expanding EL subgroup whose teachers at times felt that they were ill equipped to instruct ELs.

Shortly before implementing SIOP at the middle school, the district conducted an analysis to understand why their ELs were underperforming. They discovered that the teachers at the middle school didn’t feel prepared or properly trained well enough to be able to successfully teach the growing population of EL students.

Ben Hill Middle School students

Lari, who was part of the analysis team, had past experience with the SIOP Model at a previous role in another district, and she saw firsthand how effective it can be in supporting academic and language growth for EL students. One of only three full-time English as a Second Language (ESL) teachers on staff at the time, she recommended the district look into adopting SIOP because of its strengths being research-based, validated, and backed by evidence.

“We talked to the team” of teachers and they said they needed more training, Lari recalled. “We said let's get you the skills. If that's what you say you don’t have, let us provide you the training to give you the skills. And that was the birth of SIOP at the Rudd Middle School.”

After the first year of implementation, teachers observed immediate but small improvements in reading, writing, and math scores among their EL students. But, to their surprise, they found that their special education students were also making strides with this new teaching framework. It was benefiting not just their EL students but all students in the classroom, especially those who learn differently.

“[SIOP] provides support and scaffolds, and teaches the teachers the strategies and techniques in order to get students engaged,” said Lari. “It makes the content and the learning comprehensible to the students at their level, whether they spoke English natively or not.”

In 2017, after three years of implementation and as the teachers became more experienced using the SIOP Model instructional framework, EL graduation rates at Jefferson County jumped to 81 percent, increasing from the 39 percent recorded in 2012. And the EL graduation rates have continued to stay strong at 86 percent in 2022.

“It’s not fairy dust. It’s just best practices — best practices that work with all students.”– Lari Valtierra

What Is the SIOP® Model?

The SIOP® Model, which was developed by Jana Echevarría, Ph.D., MaryEllen Vogt, Ed.D., and Deborah J. Short, Ph.D, has been empirically validated, meaning that the research behind its efficacy has been proven in classrooms. SIOP centers around 30 instructional Features that are organized under 8 Components that are proven to bring about statistically significant academic content and language growth.

Savvas Learning Company is the sole authorized source for SIOP® Professional Learning, which is based on the SIOP Model. Savvas SIOP Professional Learning workshops are developed in collaboration with the foundational SIOP authors to provide educators with learning opportunities that facilitate experiencing SIOP while learning about SIOP.

“One thing I always tell the teachers about SIOP, it looks like a lot,” said Rachel Reyes, a professional development coach at Jefferson County who is responsible for supporting teachers on the SIOP Model. “Then, when you teach, it's so much easier because the kids do all the work, and you do all the preparation. So yes, it is planning ahead of time, but when you're in the classroom you sort of just get to sit back and watch the kids learn.”

The SIOP Model serves as a blueprint for developing lessons that meet the linguistic needs of ELs at various levels of language proficiency and sets high expectations for grade-level content instruction. The model’s goals are to make grade-level content comprehensible and foster academic language development. It provides teachers with a structure for success through reading, writing, listening, and speaking activities, but it also leaves space for teachers to maintain agency in making instructional decisions to meet the needs of their particular learners.

“It's not just helpful for our ESL students,” said Jennifer Patrick, a 6th-grade teacher at Rudd Middle School. “We have a lot of students who are low-level students, and it helps them, and it helps our high-level students. It just helps get their thinking out.”

Jefferson County School students

Jennifer’s fellow 6th-grade teacher colleague, Emily Hoffman added that the strategies embedded in the SIOP Model encourage the teacher to take a step back and allow the students to do the talking. The model allows them to take ownership of their learning. It also encourages them to listen to each other and feel safe to practice healthy discourse in the classroom, which leads to a classroom culture of learning and academic growth.

“It creates a comfortable classroom culture,” she said. “The kids are not afraid in the class. They're not afraid to talk. They're not afraid to learn. They're not afraid to be wrong, to try. They’re just very comfortable in the classroom.”

Going Forward with SIOP® and Seeing Growth

Today, the district employs 57 full-time EL teachers and 4 full-time translators to serve its EL population. SIOP training is now being done through Savvas SIOP-trained coaches at the district level in Jefferson County and they continue to see student growth.

“Since we have implemented SIOP training and provided this for our teachers, we are seeing that our ESL students are performing at higher rates,” said Lari. “We see all our graduation rates have increased.”

Dr. Serra Peterson, principal of Hueytown Middle School, just started the process to get her teachers trained in SIOP this summer — with a goal to have 80 percent of the teaching staff trained within the next two years. She is very excited about adopting a teaching model that targets their EL students while using the same strategies to improve the learning of all of their students.

“It creates a comfortable classroom culture. The kids are not afraid in the class. They're not afraid to talk. They're not afraid to learn. They're not afraid to be wrong, to try. They’re just very comfortable in the classroom.” – Emily Hoffman

“Every student sitting in a seat has a right to be provided with the quality of instruction that will cultivate their learning abilities,” said Serra. “They have a right to be provided the quality of instruction that would move them at their maximum pace. We’ve got to be intentional. We've got to close that gap. We just can't be satisfied with the minimum. And SIOP is going to be our focused way of getting it done.”

Lari believes that as long as the district continues to invest in evidence-based resources and high-quality professional learning, Jefferson County will continue on this road to student success.

“We're working on what's best for kids, and as long as we keep doing that. And as long as we're doing what's right, we’re going to get the results we need,” Lari said.

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