Promising Practices Program

Administering Organization

Saint Paul Public Schools English Language Learner Programs; St. Paul, Minnesota

Program Name

Serving Refugee Students in the St. Paul Public Schools

Program Objectives and Unique Needs Addressed

The English Language Learner (ELL) Department strives to provide a premier education for language learners, including refugees, with long-range goals for language proficiency, strong foundations, community engagement, and collaborative success. The ELL Department is not only providing services for students in the schools, but the ELL Department also works with the families and communities of ELL students to ensure that students and their families are offered opportunities to learn, grow, and participate inside and outside of school.  Many of the ELL services for students and families extend into academic, cultural, and community areas.

The ELL Department offers content-based ELL instructional programs, which strive to promote students' English language proficiency and mastery of academic content at the same time by integrating subject areas with language objectives.  ELL students acquire English through participation in age-appropriate instruction that is aligned to national, state, and district content standards as well as English language proficiency standards.  The primary objective of teaching language through content is to make grade-level standards and curriculum accessible to ELL students at all levels.

The ELL Department engages in many family involvement activities for English language learners, which include district-wide parent meetings and classes.  Parents of ELL students are all invited to participate in these family involvement activities in which childcare, food, and transportation are all provided.  The objective of these family involvement activities is to promote and increase parent involvement in the education of ELL students.

Program Description

All new students (both American-born and foreign-born) go through the district's "Student Placement Center" to determine school and class placement.  The Student Placement Center has staff who speak the languages of the main foreign-born populations (Hmong, Karen, Somali, and Spanish) and the ability to provide interpretation in other languages as necessary. Students with interrupted formal education, which includes many refugees, participate in ELL programs that are designed for them such as:

  • Language Academy Program: Language Academies are for newcomer students in grades 1-6 classrooms are comprised of both ELL students and native English speakers.  The classrooms are taught collaboratively by mainstream and ELL teachers.  All students work on the same academic material, but ELL students are provided with adaptations and scaffolding assistance from their teachers and bilingual educational assistants.  Most newcomer students attend this program for two years. 
  • English Language Centers: The ELCs are for newcomer students in grades 7-12 and are designed to ease the transition for students while allowing them to work toward graduation standards.  Students spend approximately 75% of their time in intensive language classes (while studying standard content) and 25% of their day in mainstream elective classes.  Classes are taught by ELL teachers.  Students make a gradual transition from newcomer programming to mainstream courses, which takes about 2 years.   
  • International Academy – LEAP: LEAP is an alternative program for newcomer students of all backgrounds in grades 9-12.  Like the ELCs, students take English language and content courses, but students may stay in the program until they graduate or reach age 22.  The curriculum also includes a socio-cultural orientation component.

The ELL Department also provides the following programs and opportunities to students and staff of Saint Paul Public Schools:

  • Dual Language Programs: Seven elementary schools offer dual language programs.  During the 2010-2011 school year, one school offers French One-Way Immersion, one school offers Spanish One-Way Immersion, four schools offer Spanish Two-Way Immersion, and one school offers Hmong Two-Way Immersion.  Starting in the 2011-2012 school year, there will be an addition of one more school offering Hmong Two-Way Immersion and one school offering Mandarin Immersion. The Immersion Programs also extend into two middle schools and two high schools.
  • Hmong Enrichment Programs:
    • Hmong Dual Language Program:  In this dual immersion program from Pre-K to 4th grade, students learn about Hmong language and literacy in the Hmong language.  Content areas and Hmong cultural pieces are all taught using the Hmong language.  This program is located in Jackson Elementary School.
    • Hmong Literacy and Culture Program: This daytime program, which consists of elective courses and enrichment activities, operates in some St. Paul schools and provides an opportunity for students to develop literacy in Hmong and to learn about Hmong culture and history. 
    • Culture, Language, Art, 'N' Dance (CLAnD): This is an after-school program that provides students with an opportunity to learn more about Hmong culture and language. 
  • Karen Programs:  During the 2010-2011 school year, the ELL department has been developing curriculum and resources to meet the needs of students and to provide native language and literacy support for Karen students.  There are also cultural presentations provided to district staff and staff from surrounding districts.
  • Somali Programs: Somali Academic Literacy and Teaching - This is an after-school program that provides K-6 Somali students with an opportunity to enhance their language proficiency in written and spoken Somali. There are also cultural presentations provided to district staff and staff from surrounding districts.
  • Latino Consent Decree: This program is designed for Spanish-speaking students who need additional support.  These students are taught in English and Spanish, and coursework is aligned with district standards to ensure that students learn the essential skills in the subject areas needed for graduation.  LCD students also learn about their Latino culture and history.

The ELL Department often collaborates with other district departments to provide services for students and their families.  Among the district departments, the two strongest collaborations include:

  • Parent Engagement: Efforts to involve and engage refugee parents vary from school to school. There are monthly workshops held for ELL parents on a variety of topics that are chosen by the parents.  During the workshops, parents are provided with food, childcare, and transportation. These workshops are coordinated through the newly formed Office of Family Engagement and Community Partnerships. In addition, the district's ELL department has approximately 110 bilingual educational assistants who provide translation, academic assistance, and serve as liaisons between the schools and parents.
  • Translation Services: Within the Office of Communications is a Translations Services office, which provides translation and interpretation services for SPPS staff and immigrant and refugee families to ensure that families receive translated documents and interpretation in their language of choice.  Ensuring that families are well informed provides them with every opportunity to actively participate in their children's education. Currently, the district employs Translation Specialists who are fluent in Hmong, Karen, Somali, and Spanish.

Resource Materials Used in Program

The ELL Department has created a number of materials that are available to order:

  • Embedding Hmong Culture in the K-6 Social Studies Curriculum
  • English-White Hmong Dictionary
  • Hmong Magnetic Words
  • The Hmong:  A Handbook for Teachers
  • Hmong Leveled Reading Books in 2 different series
  • Hmong Nonfiction Books
  • Hmong Decodable Books
  • Hmong Phonics Materials
  • Embedding Somali Culture in the K-3 Social Studies Curriculum
  • Somalia and the Somalis: A Handbook for Teachers
  • Embedding Latino Culture into the K-3 Social Studies Curriculum
  • Bilingual Educational Glossaries (to ensure consistent translations and interpretation in schools; available in Hmong, Khmer, Oromo, Somali, Spanish, and Vietnamese)
  • Picture Dictionaries (Hmong, Karen, Oromo, Somali, and Spanish) and talking CDs
  • School Selection Guide (sent by selective mailing process to all homes; available in English, Hmong, Somali, and Spanish)
  • ELL/Mainstream Collaboration

Materials can be ordered online at by clicking on "Bilingual Products" or by contacting the ELL Department at (651) 767-8320 or

The Minnesota Department of Education has created a number of videos including:

  • You Can Help Your Child in School and You Can Talk to Your Child’s School, which are available in Amharic, Arabic, English, Hmong, Nuer, Oromo, Russian, Somali, and Spanish. 

Groups Served by Program

Overall, students at SPPS speak 126 languages and dialects.  The top 3 are:

  • Hmong: Approximately 24% of students in the SPPS
  • Spanish: Approximately 10% of students in the SPPS
  • Karen: Approximately 3% of students in the SPPS
  • Somali: Approximately 2.4% of students in the SPPS

Program Funding

The ELL Department uses Title III funding to provide programs and services for immigrant and refugee students.  Parent involvement activities for Hmong and Somali families in the St. Paul Schools are partially funded by a Refugee School Impact Grant from the Office of Refugee Resettlement. 

Program Staffing and Required Staff Training

The number of refugee and immigrant students in the Saint Paul Public Schools is so high and the programming for these students is so integrated with the mainstream programs that it is difficult to separate out the number of staff in the district dedicated to working with newcomer students.

All ELL staff are provided with professional development on teaching language through content and collaboration.  For ELL and mainstream teachers, the ELL Department provides cultural presentations on the specific ELL student groups and workshops on incorporating cultural pieces in the social studies curriculum.

Program Evaluation

In the recent years, the ELL Department has participated in a program review by the Minnesota Department of Education and has conducted an internal study of the ELL programs and services in SPPS.  The ELL Department has incorporated findings of the MDE Program Review into its current practices and has been working on shifting ELL instruction.  The ELL Department is constantly working to improve services to better support ELL students.

Program Outcomes

In 2003-05, ELL students in the SPPS made steady gains in both math and reading on all standardized tests including the MN Comprehensive Assessment, MN Test of Emerging Academic English, MN Basic Skills Test, and Stanford Achievement Test (SAT10).  In the 2006 Council of Great City Schools “Beating the Odds” report, SPPS was recognized as being one of the schools within the Great City Schools that made the best gains in closing the achievement gap between ELL and non-ELL students.  The district continues to close the achievement gap between ELL and non-ELL students.  Each year, ELL students in the SPPS continue to do better than their state-wide peers on the MN Comprehensive Assessment II in reading and math.

Additional Comments

Over the past few years, the demographics of ELL students has continued to transform the services provided by the ELL Department.  With the Karen student population increasing to over 1,100 in 2010-2011 from roughly 700 in 2009-2010 as well as with increases in other student groups, the challenge of providing English Language Development has been a major focus within the ELL Department.  We strive to provide appropriate professional development for teachers and staff in areas of culture, language, family involvement, and academics.

Program Contact

Heidi Bernal
Director of ELL Programs
(651) 767-8320

Program Dates

ELL programming has been a part of the Saint Paul Public Schools since 1975; however, the Language Academy Program began in 1999 and other aspects of the district’s ELL programming followed. The programs as described here are still operating as of February 2011.