#RethinkSchool: AZ, UT, CO, and WY Lead the Charge for English Learners

As a former English learner, teacher of English as a second language, administrator of migrant education, and now director of the Office of English Language Acquisition, I approached my Back to School Tour with the goal of visiting places that #RethinkSchool for bilingual and multilingual students.

Dr. Mark Sorensen, the co-founder and CEO of the Service to All Relations (STAR) charter school in Flagstaff, AZ picked me up at the airport and drove me to his pride and joy. As we headed in the direction of the Navajo’s sacred mountains, he told me the story of STAR’s humble beginnings. Mark and his wife wanted to serve children from the Navajo reservation.

The needs of these students were not being met; about half of them weren’t graduating from high school. So they bought a junk yard, cleared it out and built their school. Seventeen years and many awards later, the STAR school is a model of innovation and customized learning. The Pre-K through 8th grade teachers promote literacy by integrating the Navajo language and traditional cultural knowledge into writing and science learning objectives. Because of the limited written Navajo text, the educators use full oral language immersion which includes the use of sign language. The Navajo culture is felt throughout the building and beyond. The students reach out to their reservation which sits just outside the school. Their approach to STEM directly impacts their community. A few of their meaningful projects include the creation of a large filter housed in an old school bus to solve the problem of the reservation’s contaminated well water, they developed economical cooling systems for homes using 5 gallon buckets so families can endure the hot summers, and the students harvested fruits and vegetables from the green house they built on campus to share with hungry families. STAR school’s culturally responsive approach to education is nimble, pertinent and exciting!

Jose Viana visits with a first grade English speaker/Spanish learner at Mill Creek Elementary in Millcreek, UT.

Would you like to experience a high-quality Dual Language Immersion Program where the subjects are taught half the day in English and the other half in Spanish? Then you have to go to Millcreek, Utah; yes, Utah.  Of the over 66,000 students enrolled in the Granite School District, 36% of them are English learners, speaking almost 160 different languages. The district has tackled this challenge by offering Dual Language Programs in 224 public schools in which ELs who speak a heritage language at home and monolingual English speakers take classes together with the goal of becoming fluent in both languages.  I had the opportunity to visit Mill Creek Elementary and see the local and international teachers in action. I am a native Spanish speaker, and after a tour through the classrooms from 1st grade to 6th grade, I could not tell which students were the English learners and which ones were the Spanish learners; they were more fluent in both languages than I was at their age. The bilingual students at Mill Creek are not only experiencing academic achievement, but cultural competence as well; and I quickly became really excited about our nation’s future. But the staff doesn’t do it alone. After the parent roundtable, one thing was very clear, the parents and teachers are working together to help the children discover their full potential and cultivate their creativity. There is no limit to what the Mustangs can accomplish! Fantástico.

Jose Viana met with Escuela Valdez School’s PTA, Principal and District Leaders.

I was talking to the treasurer from Escuela Valdez’s PTA, and when I asked her about the school’s parent liaison, she quickly corrected me and said, “You mean our angel.” During my time in Denver, I was able to experience Escuela Valdez’s commitment to its diverse community and their culture. This focus is embodied in their “angel,” who has established a true collaborative parent committee representing all the school’s races and ethnicities. When I asked her about this accomplishment, she simply said, “The power of together.” One of Secretary DeVos’ priorities is to empower families and individuals and improve family engagement in schools; Escuela Valdez exemplifies this philosophy. Together, parents and staff promote effective instruction by providing culturally relevant, individualized education for all learners through their innovative programs which include dual-language classrooms. Go Panthers – adelante!

Jose Viana with State Superintendent, District Leaders, Munger Elementary Principal, Jackson Hole High Principal and School staff at Munger Mountain Elementary in Jackson Hole, WY.

Principal Scott Crisp, who is a 2017 School Ambassador Fellow at the US Department of Education, hosted me at his school, Jackson Hole High. Everyone in his diverse school community is both a teacher and a learner! I had the pleasure of speaking to one of his 200 Latino students. He has lived in this country for only a couple of years and because of Jackson Hole’s academic rigor for all students, especially their English learners, he is quickly acquiring fluency while also participating in a couple of the school’s many AP courses. With innovative programs in engineering, robotics, fabrication, performing and visual arts, just to name a few, it’s no wonder why Jackson Hole is the number one high school in Wyoming and in the top 3% in the United States. The learning environment at JHHS is agile, relevant and exciting! Their motto, “Bronc pride” is right on point! How fortunate I was to also visit the only dual immersion magnet school in Wyoming. The school leaders and teachers at Munger Mountain Elementary in Jackson prepare bilingual and biliterate global citizens who achieve academic excellence and sociocultural competence.  Los Lobos meet the unique needs of their students and their community every day!

Jose Viana visits with a fifth grade Spanish speaker/English learner at Afflerbach Elementary in Cheyenne, WY.

I will always treasure my day visiting Laramie County Schools in Cheyenne. They empowered English learner families by facilitating a roundtable discussion with parents, students, teachers and school leaders from Afflerbach Elementary, Johnson Junior High and South High School. After I listened to their challenges and successes I had the opportunity to give them a preview of OELA’s new English Learner Family Tool Kit, which will help parents and guardians understand the U.S. education system. This unforgettable visit was deeply moving.

I feel honored to have toured these amazing schools. Each of them is rethinking education by using innovative approaches to meet the needs of their bilingual and multilingual students.  It was a privilege to encounter people doing life-changing work every day.  I came back to D.C. inspired and ready to share everything I learned. I am truly excited about our nation’s future because Arizona, Utah, Colorado, and Wyoming are leading the charge for our English learners.


Jose Viana is Director of the Office of English Language Acquisition at the U.S. Department of Education.

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Note: This is a post in our #RethinkSchool series. The series features innovative schools and stories from students, parents and educators highlighting efforts across the United States to rethink school. The #RethinkSchool series presents examples of approaches schools, educators, families and others are using to rethink school in their individual and unique circumstances. Blog articles provide insights on the activities of schools, programs, grantees and other education stakeholders to promote continuing discussion of educational innovation and reform. The Department of Education does not endorse any educational product, service, curriculum or pedagogy.