Welcoming English Learners with a Mindset for Success

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Meet the educators at the Language Institute, housed inside Grace M. Davis High School in Modesto, California. Nine years ago, this dedicated group teamed up with their administrators to find a solution to better support their growing “newcomer” population. In California, newcomers are students who have been in the US for four years or less. Like many schools and districts across the country, Modesto struggled to adequately meet the needs of these students, many of whom had recently arrived from Latin and South America.

Collectively, they created the Language Institute, a dedicated space to serve all newcomers from the entire district of Modesto. With guidance from then-Superintendent, Arturo Flores, they formed a committee of teachers and administrators who sifted through the data and faced the reality that their English language learner outcomes were “abysmal.” They hired consultants and visited other school districts that supported similar student populations. In 2009, the Language Institute opened its doors. To date, it has served students from 18 countries who speak upwards of 35 languages.

Just as the Language Institute opened, Modesto became a War Refugee Resettlement Hub, and experienced a dramatic shift in the makeup of its student population. The faculty at the Language Institute had to adjust to this new population of Middle Eastern language learners—many of whom had very limited prior exposure to the Roman alphabet—and used research to modify their curriculum to best address the needs of these new students. 

From Pre-K to College-Ready in as Little as Two Years

The Language Institute’s success has been nothing short of extraordinary. Last spring, 90% of its graduates continued on to higher education. It has consistently moved students from a pre-k literacy level to college-ready in a span of two to four years. It has cultivated a remarkable community of learners who support one another and are enriched by knowing students from such diverse backgrounds. 

How was the Institute able to achieve these remarkable outcomes with such a diverse, newcomer student body?

The Language Institute’s Recipe for Success


  • Data-driven instruction

Upon entering the Institute, students are assessed using a variety of math and literacy screeners, including the Reading and Phonics Inventories. This enables educators to make data-driven decisions and differentiate between their long-term ELs, who require targeted, rigorous language instruction, and their students who have little to no previous exposure to the English language. Students proudly take charge of their learning and track their own progress and teachers and administrators continuously review the data and use it to tailor adjustments to placement and instruction.


  • Targeted curriculum

The Phonics Inventory and Reading Inventory have uncovered a cohort of students, particularly those from the Middle East, who lacked the basic foundations of the English language. To meet these needs and provide systematic, explicit instruction reading and writing instruction for older non- and struggling readers, the Language Institute began to implement System 44 as part of a tiered system of intervention. Once students become advancing decoders, they progress into READ 180, which supports comprehension and language development. Both System 44 and READ 180 are part of a tiered Language Development (LD) system whose goal is to move students into mainstream classes as quickly and effectively as possible.


  • Innovative scheduling

Students are assessed at one of seven local feeder high schools.  If they need additional English language support, they are sent to the Language Institute. To better serve these students, the Language Institute has implemented “out of the box” master scheduling. Every EL student is assigned an extra class every day. In getting more time than the general school population, the students are able to develop their language skills and get the academic credits they need.

In any school, master scheduling is a difficult puzzle. Adding a double-block for students who are down credits was a tremendous challenge, according to former principal Mike Rich. In addition to giving them the extra daily class, he says, “we offer a fifth-year option. If they've got enough credit to graduate with a fifth year, we will give them an extra year of school to make sure that they're successful in what they want to do beyond high school.”

  • Passionate and Dedicated Staff

Spend any time at The Language Institute and the dedication of its staff is palpable. The teachers there hold a core belief that their students are capable.  As Lead Teacher Lindsay Bird says, “You can’t address the achievement gap if you don’t acknowledge the belief gap. Your students are not going to succeed if, on day one, you’ve written them off because you perceive the hill that they have to climb is too steep.” 


  • Parent and Community Involvement

The Language Institute welcomes parent involvement and offers support to families as well. In working with students who speak so many languages, the school leaders quickly discovered that family engagement is key. As a result, they have hired several parents to act as para-professionals and/or translators in the classroom and they hold regular events to involve parents and provide them with networking and educational opportunities. They also have developed special partnerships with community-based organizations to provide services to families outside of school. 

To learn more about System 44 and READ 180, the programs that brought success to English learners at the Language Institute, visit our website.


Hear from students and teachers at the Language Institute in this video.

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