ELs excelling: Principal shares the keys to 3 big achievements

Principal Angel M. Rodriguez and his team at Lyman Hall Elementary School have seen record numbers of EL students graduating from language programs and being identified as gifted.

Answer: Record numbers of EL students graduating from language programs and being identified as gifted. Question: Why was Angel M. Rodriguez, leader of Lyman Hall Elementary School in Georgia, named Principal of the Year by the Association of Latino Administrators and Superintendents?

The high-poverty elementary recently recorded the highest number of students completing their ESOL classes in the history of the Hall County School District northeast of the Atlanta metro area, Rodriguez says. That has a direct correlation to high school graduation. “In middle school and high school, they don’t teach reading,” he adds. “[Students] getting into middle and high school without finishing their ESOL, it’s just very hard on them to stay engaged, to stay connected.”

Lyman Hall’s test scores are the highest in the school’s history while Rodriguez and his team also have ensured that dozens more English learners and other students are being identified as gifted. When he became Lyman Hall’s principal, only three English learners in a school of 700 students were identified as such. “I thought this can’t be right,” he recalls. “We need to work harder to provide these kids with the educational opportunities they deserve.”

After his first year, he and his team increased the number of gifted EL students to 13 and several years later, there are now around 115, giving Lyman Hall one of the highest EL gifted percentages in Georgia and, potentially, in the nation, he notes.

‘SWIRLing all day’

Lyman Hall’s ESOL and gifted achievements have everything to do with expanding the capacity of teachers, explains Rodriguez, who is also a former elementary school teacher. Rather than taking a traditional approach of putting the school’s best teachers in the “testing” grades (such as third grade), he placed his “rock star” educators in literacy, K2 and ESOL.

About 80% of his current team of ESOL educators are former teachers of the year and grade chairs. “It was an area of need and I needed the people with the capacity to do this type of work,” he notes. Instruction is encapsulated by the acronym “SWiRL”—which stands for speaking, writing, reading and listening. 

“They’ve had to create a lot of their own materials,” Rodriguez points out. “Their intentional focus was to SWiRL with the kids … SWiRLing all day. And it can’t just be something that occurs only when the ESOL teacher walks in, it has to got to be something ingrained, that’s embedded in their practice throughout the day.”

He’s also working to expand the number of teachers who have gifted endorsements to go with their ESOL credentials. “Once you get a group of highly capable teachers … get that core group in place and then they come to me with ‘hey we want to do this, hey we want to do that,'” he says. “My job is to step back and discern what the good ideas are and help put them into place.”

3 types of invitations to engagement

A third big achievement has been consistently high family engagement. In other districts where Rodriguez has worked, events maxed out at about 3% family engagement. Lyman Hall regularly sees nearly 30% participation in its activities, a rate Rodriguez calls an “outlier level.” He and his team’s focus on engagement boils down to three types of “invitations to engagement.”

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The most effective are student-centered invitations such as notifications of concerts and recitals. Next on the list are teacher-centered invitations, such as requests for conferences with parents. Finally, “general engagement” covers newsletters, email blasts and other forms of mass communication. Recently, attendance skyrocketed at curriculum nights because they focused on individual grades rather than blocks of grades, as had been done in the past.

Rodriguez also encourages teachers to add hand-written notes, such as “I saw this and thought of you,” on flyers sent home to parents.

“No one is as excited about seeing our families show up as our teachers are,” he concludes. “We don’t make assumptions about what [families] can or cannot bring to the table. We just try to know them as much as we know the students, we try to communicate with them as much as possible and look for invitations for them to be engaged with school.”

Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick is a life-long journalist. Prior to writing for District Administration he worked in daily news all over the country, from the NYC suburbs to the Rocky Mountains, Silicon Valley and the U.S. Virgin Islands. He's also in a band.

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