A r c h i v e d  I n f o r m a t i o n

School Reform and Student Diversity - September 1995

5. School Culture and Structure that Support High Quality Learning Environments for LEP Students

The previous section examined ways in which the exemplary schools implemented high quality learning environments to assist LEP students in learning challenging content in language arts, math, and science, while becoming literate in English. The development of innovative approaches to curriculum and instruction at the sites took place in the context of broader school reform. This section describes how the exemplary schools reinvented their culture and structure to support those high quality learning environments.

This process of reinvention is referred to in the reform literature as school restructuring, a term with multiple uses that have partially obscured its meaning. Restructuring requires fundamentally changing the way schools have traditionally been organized and how they have operated.1 Staff at each of the exemplary schools were engaged in a continuous process of restructuring, rethinking the school's basic organization and structure to support and enhance the education of LEP--and all--students. The changes fundamentally affected the school's culture--the school values, the ways students learn, the role of teachers, the school's relations with parents and the community, and the school's overall goals. At the exemplary sites, the process of cultural change was evolutionary but nonetheless profound. The culture at these schools has taken on a completely different character from that of more traditional schools.

Though no two exemplary sites developed identical school reforms, each site departed significantly from the traditional ways that schools are organized and operate. Elementary schools have been traditionally organized into self-contained classrooms with teachers who are unconnected with other teachers. At the middle school level, schools have typically been organized into large, impersonal units that isolate both students and teachers. In terms of scheduling, schools commonly fragment the day into short, 45- to 55-minute periods, a practice that makes it difficult for teachers and students to engage in in-depth learning activities.2 Administration and decision making have almost always been top-down processes dominated by an often distant district office, a structure that offers little opportunity for meaningful involvement of teachers, parents, or the community.3 In fact, parents have very seldom been encouraged to play any type of significant role in the education of their children in the traditional setting.4 In terms of services, schools have traditionally treated a child's educational needs separately from their needs for adequate health and social services.5 Finally, many traditional schools, particularly those in urban areas, have not been seen as a focal point of their neighborhoods or communities.

The exemplary schools created organizational structures and ways of operating that permitted them to make significant departures from the norm. Figure I-5.1 identifies key elements of restructuring implemented at the exemplary sites. These categories do not comprise a comprehensive list of all reform activities undertaken by the schools; rather, they represent those restructuring elements that were the most mature at the time of our field visits and best supported the learning environment for LEP students in the exemplary schools. Table I-5.1 briefly describes how these categories of restructuring were implemented at each of the exemplary schools. As the table shows, no school had implemented all elements of restructuring in the same way. This variation is not surprising. The traditional school structure was cast in a rigid mold, varying little from school to school or location to location throughout the country. In breaking this mold, it would neither be desirable nor possible for schools to recreate a single, uniform structure. Instead, the exemplary schools were involved in a process of creating schooling that best fit their own students, teachers, and communities as they sought to develop high quality, engaged learning environments for LEP students.

How these schools varied in their implementation of similar restructuring elements is a fundamental research question. In answering this question, this study describes an empirical range of options available to schools undergoing systemic reform. The remainder of this section states findings about how schools implemented these elements of restructuring to enable LEP students to learn challenging content in language arts, math, and science, while becoming literate in English.

Table I-5.1
How the Study Sites Implemented School Restructuring

Elementary Grades (4-6)

Middle Grades (6-8)

Del Norte

Linda Vista



Graham and Parks


Horace Mann


Organization of Schooling


• Developmental, ungraded wings

• Continuum classes

• Team teaching

• Collaboration within same grade level

• Multi-grade class (4-8)

• Team teaching

• School-within- a-school: Houses

• Integrated core courses

• School-within- a-school: Families

• School-within- a-school: Families

Productive Uses of Time

• Block scheduling

• After-school tutoring

• Summer school

• Block scheduling

• After-school tutoring

• Year-round schedule

• Extended block of time for language arts

• After-school tutoring

• After-school tutoring

• Block scheduling

• After-school tutoring

• Block scheduling

• After-school tutoring

• Block scheduling

• After-school tutoring

• After-school tutoring

Teacher Collaboration

• Cross-grade
and within grade level planning

• Teacher collaboration within wings

• Weekly minimum days for joint planning

• Team teaching

• Common planning time for teachers

• Daily common planning time for teachers

• Team teaching

• Daily common planning time for teachers

• Daily common planning time for teachers

• Daily common planning time for teachers

Professional Development

• Extensive professional development based on assessment of needs

• Extensive professional development supported by relationships with external partners

• Professional development focusing on language development

• Weekly professional development activities

• Professional development

• Intensive, long-term professional development through relationship with external partner

• Extensive professional development supported by state restructuring grant and external partnerships

• Professional development through state network on middle school restructuring

School Decision- Making

• Committee- based decision- making

• Committee- based decision- making

• Inquiry method implemented by cadres

• Committee- based decision-making

• Committee- based decision-making

• House-level administration and decision-making

• Parent and community input on school-wide decisions

• Committee- based decision-making, advised by community council

• Committee- based decision-making

Parent, Community Engagement

• Extensive parent education, outreach, and involvement

• Parent and community outreach

• Extensive parent education program

• Collaboration with the community outreach

• Extensive parent involvement in governance and learning activities

• Parents involved in governance

• Extensive parent education program

• Parent and community involvement in decision-making

• Parent involvement through community council

• Parents and community members serve on governing committee

Integrated Services

• Proactive student counseling

• Referrals made
by community liaisons

• On-site social
services and referrals via social workers

• Referrals to community social service organization

• Extensive counseling program

• Referrals for health services

• Comprehen- sive integrated services via Family Resource Center

• Referrals to community-based social service providers

• Referrals to community social service organization

Finding #5.1 Innovative Organization of Schooling. The exemplary sites restructured their schools into smaller schooling units that enabled teachers to work collaboratively to:
  • implement curriculum and instructional strategies such as cooperative learning, meaning-centered curriculum, and project-based and thematic instruction;

  • understand each LEP student's strengths, experiences, and cultural background;

  • use innovative grouping approaches such as ungraded and developmentally appropriate classes, or keeping the same students with the same teacher over four or five years;

  • incorporate newcomer students more easily; and

  • integrate LEP students with English-speaking students and promote flexible transition strategies.
The exemplary schools created organizational structures that allowed for increased interaction between teachers and students and produced significant pedagogic advantages, particularly for the education of LEP students. The following discussion describes these organizational structures.

Schools-within-Schools. One of the case study elementary schools, Linda Vista, and three of the middle schools, Hanshaw, Horace Mann, and Wiggs restructured their schools into a number of smaller organizational units or "schools-within-schools." At Linda Vista, the school was divided into four instructional "wings" that included LEP and monolingual English students. The schools-within-schools at the middle school level were called "families" at Horace Mann and Wiggs and "houses" at Hanshaw. Within these smaller units, involving, for example, about 100 students and four teachers, the teachers worked as teams and were thus able to maintain close communication. They planned their curriculum and thematic units together and sometimes taught as teams. All of the remaining study sites had some form of more informal sub-school structures.

Linda Vista's instructional wings provided four ungraded units, each of which spanned two or three traditional grade levels, with one wing for each major developmental progression from early childhood up to middle school. The wing structure allowed the school to break the rigid age/grade structure and respond appropriately to the developmental needs of individual LEP and other students. The structure was particularly effective for Linda Vista's multilingual LEP student population; it enabled the school to place students into groups within a wing according to their primary language and previous schooling and to advance students as they learned and developed. See Box I-5.1 for more detail on Linda Vista's developmental wings.

Box I-5.1

Linda Vista Elementary Developed Ungraded "Wings"

All students at Linda Vista were placed into one of four developmental wings--early childhood, primary, middle, and upper. Each wing spanned two to three grade levels. The wings, rather than the classroom, served as the organizer for instruction. Students spent the full day in their wing and were grouped and regrouped to respond to their needs for specialized language instruction and for integration with other students in the wing. For example, during their two-hour morning language arts block, students were grouped with other students with similar language development needs. As students developed their language skills, they progressed through Linda Vista's continuum of increasingly advanced language arts classes. Students were regrouped for social studies based on their home language and regrouped again for mathematics based on mathematics proficiency. Finally, students spent the afternoons in heterogeneous groups for science instruction. The structure allowed teachers to serve LEP students in a manner appropriate to their level of language development without isolating them from their peers. Within each wing, teachers worked together to coordinate curriculum and plan joint activities.

The three exemplary middle schools created smaller units within the larger structure of what might otherwise have been a large, impersonal middle school. Traditionally, students move from elementary schools with small, self-contained classrooms to a junior high school structure that calls for students to make a sudden leap to a great deal of autonomy and independence. Typical junior high schools are organized like high schools, with a departmentalized administrative structure, 45- to 55-minute class periods, students who see a different teacher each hour, and teachers who see up to 200 students per day. In this environment, students move from one subject matter class to another with very little connection between the classes, and little opportunity to establish meaningful relationships with adults. However, research shows that students making the transition from elementary school to junior high school--as well as the transition from childhood to the teenage years--need a more intimate and interconnected school structure. Both teachers and students benefit from the smaller organizational units as faculty can get to know their students much better than they ordinarily would in the traditional junior high school organization and students can benefit both academically and socially from being known and cared about.6

The exemplary middle schools implemented the idea of a smaller schooling unit in the form of "families" or "houses" that differed somewhat from school to school in the way they were organized, in the number and types of classes students took within the smaller units, and in the way students--particularly LEP students--were assigned to those units. (In designing their schools-within-schools, the middle schools were influenced by the demography and needs of its student population, input from parents and the school community, and the available human and fiscal resources.) Smaller units allowed faculty to interact more closely with a smaller number of students; LEP students consequently benefited from their teachers' in-depth familiarity with their individual language development and academic needs. Not surprisingly, LEP students also felt more connected as a community and they responded with increased motivation marked by improved attendance and higher grades. The staff also benefited. They had more opportunities to work collaboratively with other teachers across disciplines, to develop and implement a meaningful curriculum, and to get to know their students. Given the complexity of educating LEP students, especially preparing them for transition into full English instruction, this increased teacher collaboration and contact appeared to have direct pedagogic benefits in strengthening the high quality learning environments described in the preceding section. Smaller organizational units also fostered enhanced parent-teacher relationships. See Boxes I-5.2 and I-5.3 for descriptions of specific elements of the school-within-a-school structures at the exemplary middle schools.

Box I-5.2

Horace Mann "Families" Provide Structure for LEP Student Program

Horace Mann's family structure grew from a schoolwide vision that included a revamped curriculum and a renewed focus on student achievement. One goal of the family structure was to create smaller units where faculty could take responsibility and be accountable for an identified group of students. Horace Mann's 650 students were organized in six families, two at each grade level. Students took all of their core classes, and some of their electives, with their family. Some electives were taken outside the family structure on a schoolwide basis. Within Horace Mann's families, students were clustered into strands of about 25 students each; strands were the typical unit of instruction in which students stayed together for their core courses. The strands allowed the families to accommodate LEP students easily into the families. There were one or two Spanish bilingual strands per grade level allowing LEP students to have instruction in Spanish and to be a part of a larger unit that facilitates contact with their English-only peers. The strand structure also allowed the school to cluster their bilingual teachers.

Box I-5.3

Hanshaw "Houses" Provide Link to University Campuses

Hanshaw's houses were affiliated with campuses of the California State University (CSU) system and students strongly identified with their house and the campus. The link to the CSU campus served two important functions. First, the relationship with the colleges was intended to raise the sights of the students, many of whom--especially the LEP students--were from families where no one had gone to college. Each CSU campus that sponsored a house provided an annual activities day for Hanshaw students. Students visited the campus, met with college students from similar backgrounds, attended special classes taught by faculty members, and participated in a ceremony to mark the event. Most Hanshaw students had never been to a college campus and the visits served to strengthen their identification to their house.

Second, the CSU link was designed deliberately to give students something to belong to--an alternative to gangs. Gangs were a problem in the community and school staff identified student need for a positive alternative to gang identification. The house system provided that alternative.

Multi-year Continuity. Three study schools, Hollibrook, Graham and Parks, and Linda Vista designed classes that allowed students to remain with a single teacher or teachers for more than one year. This design built more sustained teacher-student, teacher-parent, and student-student contact, over time, into each student's program. Students had more stability and teachers were able to provide greater individualization. Teachers reported that the benefits of keeping students together included increased opportunities for parent involvement and greater opportunity for students to learn what was expected of them in a particular class and how to be productive members of cooperative learning groups.

At Hollibrook, continuum bilingual classes were formed at kindergarten and the students remained together with the same teacher until third or fourth grade. (See Box I-5.4 for more on Hollibrook's continuum classes.) Graham and Parks used ungraded combined classes in which students were grouped together for several years with the same teacher while they learned English. At Graham and Parks, each bilingual class spanned at a minimum two grade levels. In the upper grade Creole bilingual program, four grades were combined into one class with two teachers.

Box I-5.4

At Hollibrook, LEP Students Stayed with the Same Teacher
for up to Five Years

Hollibrook Elementary School staff responded to the research on student development and the need for a consistent relationship with a caring adult by implementing continuum classes in which students remained with the same teacher from kindergarten through third or fourth grade. One goal of the strategy of these continuum classes was to provide a sense of continuity for students whose lives outside school were characterized by instability. In these classes, students, teachers, and parents got to know one another very well. Gaps in learning from one grade to the next were eliminated because the teacher knew what was accomplished by the class as a whole and by individual students in the previous years. Finally, continuum classes offered unique advantages to students learning English. Transition to English literacy could be tailored to meet the needs of individual students and teachers had the advantage of gaining an understanding of the needs of individual students over a period of years.

Team Teaching. At both Hollibrook and Graham and Parks, teachers delivered instruction in teams. At Hollibrook, teamed classes were composed of both English and Spanish dominant students, allowing the students to be grouped and regrouped according to the activity. As a result, LEP students might have been grouped together for language arts instruction, but had opportunities to interact with English-only students during other times of the day. When team teaching was combined with the continuum approach, it allowed teachers to work together for several years and become a proficient team.

Graham and Parks' 5th through 8th grade class for Haitian LEP students was team-taught by a native Creole-speaking bilingual teacher and an English-as-a-Second-Language teacher. The learning environment was significantly enhanced by the complementary strengths the two teachers brought to the class. The Creole-speaking teacher used only Creole in the class, while the ESL teacher served as the English-language role model.

Inter-American employed a different model of team teaching, one in which teachers delivered instruction as a team on a periodic and flexible basis. Teachers at Inter-American collaborated and shared students within each grade level. At times, this collaboration led to joining classes for large group activities facilitated by two or more teachers. In some cases, adjacent classrooms had partitions between them that opened and allowed teachers to easily switch between a self-contained classroom and an environment more suited to team teaching.

Finding #5.2 Productive Uses of Time. The exemplary schools organized time during the school day and the school year to support their instructional and curriculum strategies, meet the needs of their LEP students, and enable extensive teacher planning and collaboration. This restructuring included:
  • managing classroom time to maximize time for learning;

  • protecting blocks of time for in-depth learning activities;

  • extending the school day; and

  • extending the school year.
One hallmark of a restructured school is a new approach to the organization of instructional time. Traditional junior high schools divide the six- to seven-hour school day into 45- to 55-minute instructional periods devoted to specific subject areas. Even in elementary schools with self-contained classes taught by a single teacher, the instructional day is typically divided into short segments with a progression of different subjects in each time slot. Dividing instructional time in this way has serious shortcomings: time segments are too short and too rigid. Traditional uses of time do not allow sufficient time for project work or thematic instruction and do not allow the demands of instructional tasks to supersede a pre-determined schedule. Students may be deeply immersed in a learning activity when the bell rings and they are forced to stop whatever they are doing and shift (both physically and cognitively) to the next class.

In contrast, staff at the schools with exemplary programs for language minority students viewed instructional time as one of the school's most critical resources. While the arrangements of time were as varied as the creativity of the teachers involved, there were some common themes in the uses of time in these schools. Teachers at exemplary programs for LEP students consistently took steps to protect sustained time for student learning. The schools examined in this study did not allow rigidly predetermined short blocks of time to supersede learning activities. Interruptions and fragmentation of the school day were avoided. Sustained time devoted to learning enabled the schools to offer thematic learning, innovative science projects and labs, long writing assignments, and other learning challenges that extended the ability of students to think critically and develop higher order thinking skills. Staff at the exemplary schools also found ways to increase the amount of time LEP students spent learning by extending the school day and year.

Managing Classroom Time to Maximize Learning. Teachers at the exemplary schools skillfully planned instructional segments that moved students from activity to activity at a pace that kept them engaged yet allowed them time for in-depth learning. Teachers taught students how, when, and where to move around the classroom for different learning activities, how to use the resources of the classroom, and what types of behavior were expected of them during different instructional grouping situations. Because students were clear about what was expected of them, they were able to work independently and initiate extensions of the learning activities. Transitions between activities were efficient and smooth and very little time was wasted. (See Finding #4.2's discussion of cooperative learning for illustrations of how time was managed in the service of producing effective learning environments for LEP students.) The net result of these classroom management strategies was increased time spent learning.

Protecting Time to Learn. Protected time to learn is the foundation for innovative curriculum and instruction. Students have the luxury to work on projects alone, in pairs, or in groups for extended periods of time without bells ringing, messages coming over the intercom, being pulled out for other activities, or the thousands of other minor interruptions that disrupt the flow of thought and concentration in a typical school. Exemplary schools protect the time to learn for students and for teachers in a variety of ways.

One way that schools protected time to learn was by giving the faculty control over daily schedules. Hollibrook and Graham and Parks teachers designed the way time was used during the day themselves. At Hollibrook, grade level teaching teams decided together when students would take physical education, music, and health education from specialists, and when their students would go to lunch. They planned the rest of the school day around specific learning objectives and created time to meet as a team. Teachers decided. Control over their schedules allowed continuum teachers to protect 90-minute to two-hour segments for Writer's Workshop or Reader's Workshop. At Graham and Parks, the two bilingual teachers in grades 5-8 controlled the use of time during the day; they allocated substantial blocks of time each for social studies, language arts, and for science projects.

Another way schools protected time to learn was by creating a schoolwide schedule that had blocks of time set aside for core content areas. Linda Vista devoted a two-hour block of time each morning to language arts classes organized by English fluency level. A shorter morning block was devoted to mathematics. Similarly, Del Norte scheduled long blocks of time for language arts and mathematics four days a week. On Fridays students spent the full day studying science and social studies. Hanshaw scheduled blocks of 90 minutes each for a combined class of mathematics and science or language arts and social studies. Horace Mann scheduled two 105- minute academic blocks each day; each academic class met every other day. Longer time blocks allowed teachers to plan more complex lessons and problem solving activities and they provided opportunities for science experiments, research activities, thematic projects, and sustained time for reading and writing.

Extending the School Day. The exemplary schools made effective use of after-school programs for LEP students. Many LEP students had no one at home who could help them with their homework and needed to find that help at school. In addition, students who are transitioning to regular instructional programs often needed help from tutors who spoke their native language. Each exemplary school responded to these needs in some way. Graham and Parks provided a homework center staffed by Creole speaking tutors, volunteers, and staff. Harvard University students who spoke Creole helped in the homework centers as did Creole teachers and aides. Hanshaw's homework center was staffed by students from the local community college. At Del Norte, classroom teachers provided after-school tutoring twice a week for 45 minutes. Students who needed extra support were encouraged to attend. For example, students who needed additional help in reading participated in an after-school program that focused on reading. Students at all of the exemplary schools regarded these after-school tutorials and homework centers as important adjuncts to their school program.

Extending the School Year. The exemplary schools extended the school year to combat the traditional three-month summer vacation in which prior learning can be forgotten. This large gap of non-school time is particularly problematic for LEP students who can lose some of their gains in English over the summer while they are immersed in their native language environment. While only one study school operated on a year-round schedule, other schools reduced the summer time gap by offering summer programs designed to accelerate LEP students' language acquisition process. Box I-5.5 provides details of two strategies used by exemplary schools to extend the school year.

Box I-5.5

Exemplary Elementary Schools Design Schedules
for Year-round Learning

Linda Vista adopted a year-round calendar in which students took more frequent short breaks rather than one long summer break. Linda Vista had a single-track year-round schedule designed not to make more efficient use of building space, but to reduce long blocks of time out of school. The year-round schedule was adopted with parents' and teachers' participation and consent. Faculty members had the same schedule as did the children so there were no discontinuities as are sometimes found in multi-track year-round schools.

Del Norte Heights Elementary offered a traditional schedule augmented by a four-week summer school. Forty percent of the student body attended the summer program which was designed as an enrichment activity. Students who needed extra help in English or students who were borderline for being retained a grade participated in the summer school.

Chapter 5 Endnotes

1 Newmann, 1991

2 Lipsitz, 1984; Alexander and George, 1981

3 Wohlstetter, 1994

4 Comer, 1986

5 Schorr, 1988

6 Lipsitz, 1984, Newmann, 1991; California Department of Education, 1987; Blos, 1979, Alexander and George, 1981.

[High Quality Learning Environments (part 2)] [Table of Contents] [School Culture and Structure that Support High Quality Learning Environments for LEP Students (part 2 of 2)]