RIVERSIDE, Calif. - As a young teacher, Linda Navarrette traveled to South Africa with one assignment: help teachers develop critical thinking skills in their students.
Little did she know that her efforts in those impoverished communities would change her life. The experience catapulted her career into education, cementing her support for students who are learning English as a second language.
Backed by a $1.9 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education, Navarrette -- a researcher at the University of California, Riverside’s Graduate School of Education -- launched Project Moving Forward in 2012. The program, which helps English-language learners and students with limited English proficiency, started in Moreno Valley Unified School District and six other California districts.
Since its implementation six years ago, Navarrette has received two multi-million dollar grants and a prestigious Golden Bell Award from the California School Boards Association. The program’s positive outcomes caught the attention of José Viana, assistant deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of Education and director of the Office of English Language Acquisition (OELA). He visited several elementary schools in the Moreno Valley Unified and Alvord Unified school districts on Jan. 18 and 19. The classrooms included k-5, as well as special-education classes that have implemented Project Moving Forward strategies.
“I’m impressed, I’m inspired, and I’m heading back to Washington with many great ideas to share,” said Viana. "It is important to replicate best practices and keep the momentum going."
OELA awarded a $2.7 million grant to Project Moving Forward in 2017. Viana met with administrators, teachers, and parents to obtain feedback on the program, and to inquire about their ideas to improve language acquisition strategies. He will use the information to build a toolkit for families on how to navigate and support their children while they are learning English. His office has already developed toolkits for students in 10 foreign languages.
The new toolkit will have topics and resources, all based on suggestions local parents gave.
“We have five million English-language learners in the United States and we want all those children to have opportunities, to graduate and to be successful,” said Viana. Viana was born to Cuban parents and -- as he learned English himself -- he taught his own father. As an educator, Viana also focused on developing support programs for farm-working families in North Carolina.
In Moreno Valley, the program has grown from two schools to 17, with all kindergartners now participating and four of the schools offering it through fifth grade. Nationwide, the program is now used in more than 100 schools in seven states.
Navarrette is meeting with other Inland Empire schools districts interested in the program. The goal, she said, is to offer Project Moving Forward to at least one million students.
The 30-minute daily program was developed following 12 years of research by Navarrette, and involves a systematic vocabulary and language development technique called the Rule of 3 or RAP, which stands for the Rehearsal, Analysis and Production of words. Project Moving Forward is fast-paced, interactive, and puts the onus for learning on the child. In 2017 Navarrette led a preliminary study to quantify reading results from Project Moving Forward English language-learning students, compared to those not in the program. The study found that non-participating children gained 0.6 points, while the average gain for program participants was 130.1 points.
Additional Project Moving Forward successes:
- 2012-2013: Academic Performance Index, or API, jumped for both of the Moreno Valley Unified School District targeted schools, both in reading and math. Both schools raised their overall API, one saw a boost of 14 points and the other gained 17 points. Thirty-three percent of English learners went from basic to proficient; African Americans improved 51 points and special education students increased 56 points.
- 2014-2015: Classrooms who improved their placement level using pre and post tests on the California English Language Development Test (CELDT): 89 percent of students went up one to four levels; 48.9 percent went up two to four levels. These results are compared to non- Project Moving Forward participants: 62 percent of students showed no improvement on CELDT; 20 percent went up one level and 17.1 percent went up two to four levels.
- 2015-2016: More than 90 percent of students in classes implementing Project Moving Forward met or exceeded their annual progress goals on CELDT. The state’s goal was 62 percent.
Twenty-two years after Navarrette took that first trip to South Africa, her mission continues in the U.S. Project Moving Forward offers teachers curriculum she said demonstrates that that children who are challenged thrive.
“Without language skills, students are always being remediated, especially students of color,” said Navarrette, a former teachers, psychologist, and administrator. “If we are going to be taking over jobs, we need to be educated. By preparing students in these early grades and helping them read at grade level, we are creating the foundation for their success. I want our children to have equal opportunities to succeed. That’s my goal.”