OGDEN — After the bell rang and teachers took roll on Thursday morning, third graders at Odyssey Elementary School split up — 18 of them migrated to Claudia Miramontes' and Kimberly Hopkin's classrooms.

Miramontes divided her students into three teams and handed them printouts of two pictures, instructing them to brainstorm how they would use the images to write a story. It sounds like a typical activity for third graders, but Miramontes is working to help these students develop composition skills in their second language — English.

“Maybe he’s scared of the tiger!” exclaimed one of the students who was on a team named "Frijoles." Team Frijoles pored over pictures of a cat and a duckling.

"But look at the cat, why’s he laying like that?" asked another student. "I think he fell."

As the daily 45 minutes focused on English language instruction winded down, students scrambled to write down the last of their ideas on a sheet of paper.

“Tomorrow you’re going to put your ideas together, you’re going to write your stories and then you will present," Miramontes said. "This is teamwork.”

These students are some of the 187, or 42.1%, at Odyssey Elementary who are learning English. The Utah State Board of Education recently recognized the school as one of eight in the state which demonstrate "exemplary" English language instruction.

Two other schools in the Ogden School District, James Madison and T.O. Smith elementary schools, were awarded "excellent" status — bringing the district to three out of the 19 schools recognized statewide. 

For an elementary school to be dubbed "excellent," it must meet four criteria, said Utah's Title III education specialist Christelle Estrada in a state school board meeting.

All of the schools that received that designation have more than 400 students enrolled, between 80% and 100% of those students are economically disadvantaged, more than 40% are learning English and 40%-60% achieved their individual annual growth goal. 

Exemplary schools like Odyssey went beyond those numbers to help 10% of students reach English proficiency before leaving elementary school — the state average is 6%.

“There would have been other schools that would have qualified for that recognition had they had more kids overall in the schools," said Ogden School District Superintendent Rich Nye. "We’re really pleased with the direction and progress we’ve made with our English learners.”

The Ogden School District is one of just two in the state in which the majority student demographic is not white. Of the 10,617 students in the district, 50.9% are Hispanic and 19% are learning English, according to state school board enrollment data.

Because of the district's minority majority makeup, Nye said the district has made the quality of its English language instruction one of its primary focuses.

“It's just the recognition that regardless of a student’s background, race, ethnicity, we’re going to provide the best education we can,” Nye said.

The Ogden School District works to have all of its teachers, in addition to their traditional subjects, specialize in English language instruction. Every teacher hired by the district is expected to obtain an ESL endorsement within three years, Nye said. 

That standard, according to Odyssey's Principal Sonja Davidson, is one of the things that helped the school reach exemplary status. More than 75% of teachers at Odyssey are endorsed for ESL instruction, and others are working on that endorsement, she said. The qualification allows teachers to work on developing students' language skills throughout the day. 

“As a school, we have had a pretty concerted effort put toward language development in the past few years,” Davidson said. “Our teachers are very intentional about providing multiple opportunities for students to read and write and converse with each other.”

Teachers have increasingly encouraged students to turn to each other and discuss what they're learning, she said. And whenever students have questions about vocabulary, teachers work to make sure students feel comfortable, not criticized, asking for help.  

Those methods are used when every subject is taught, said Harmony Kryger, who is a fifth grade teacher and the school's ESL coordinator. 

"We are in math right now, but we’re still wanting to focus on building those language development skills into math," she said. "You have to have the academic vocabulary, you have to be able to converse in math."

If students don't learn to understand the basic vocabulary related to all academic subjects before leaving elementary school, she added, the chances of them succeeding in junior high and high school go down significantly.

Both Davidson and Kryger emphasized the role coordination between faculty plays in keeping the school's ESL program running. To see that Odyssey is one of the most successful schools in the state in graduating students who are proficient in English, they said, reaffirms the importance of teachers' work.

"It feels so good to see that those moments of really intense lesson planning, and those moments that you're working with a student one on one ... that it’s coming together," Kryger said. "It feels good to go, ‘Yes! I taught something, I got it.'”

Contact reporter Emily Anderson at eanderson@standard.net. Follow her on Twitter at @emilyreanderson.

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