Irvine, Calif., Jan. 14, 2014 – Carol Booth Olson, director of the UC Irvine Writing Project and associate professor of education, has received an $11 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education to expand a reading and analytical writing intervention program for English-language learners to Southern California middle and high schools. The program will reach more than 100,000 students and 240 teachers in districts with predominantly low-income populations.

“English-language learners are much less likely than their mainstream peers to graduate from high school and go on to postsecondary education,” Olson said. “This intervention program will help level the playing field by providing a rigorous analytical writing curriculum that will help bring students up to a place where they can compete academically and experience success.”

She applied for the grant through the Department of Education’s Investing in Innovation competition, which promotes novel approaches to improving student performance and attainment.

“The project aims to close the achievement gap for English learners by providing high-quality professional development to teachers,” Olson said. “They tend to be incredibly dedicated but are overworked and deal with large class sizes and other challenges. We treat them as professionals and provide support, materials and ideas. Our goal is to create professional learning communities at our school sites.”

Deborah Lowe Vandell, founding dean of UC Irvine’s School of Education, said the award is an important recognition of the work of the UC Irvine Writing Project under Olson’s leadership.

“This grant promises to make a real difference for middle and high school students in Southern California,” Vandell said. “Because the grant also includes a rigorous program evaluation, it will contribute to national efforts to understand how best to meet the educational needs of English learners.”

English learners are generally defined as students whose limited proficiency in the language makes it difficult to learn when taught in English. Recent estimates indicate that more than 10 percent (5 million) of all school-age children in the U.S. fall into this category.

“These students might be able to converse and write in English but are unable to write at a higher academic level,” Olson said. “Our focus is on teaching them how to interpret, analyze, make inferences and draw conclusions in their writing.”

The funding will expand a program that she and her colleagues in UC Irvine’s School of Education conducted for teachers in the Santa Ana Unified School District, where 88 percent of students are identified as English-language learners.

The Santa Ana intervention provided 72 teachers with professional development enhancing their ability to help middle school English learners understand, interpret and write analytical essays.

Research from the first year of the intervention confirmed improvement in students’ analytical writing ability and scores on the California Standards Test in English-language arts. In the second year of the program, students did better on both the CST and the state’s on-demand writing assessment.

Students in the Norwalk-La Mirada Unified School District’s three comprehensive high schools will begin the intervention in September.

“We’re thrilled to partner with UC Irvine on this innovative program,” said Lila Bronson, Ed.D., assistant superintendent of educational services for the school district. “The grant will help our students master Common Core standards and become better writers, thinkers and communicators.”

UC Irvine’s Robin Scarcella, professor of academic English; Rebecca Black, associate professor of education; and Bill Tomlinson, professor of informatics, are contributors to the program.

Olson’s team also received $663,000 in Common Core textbooks from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and a 50 percent discount on young adult novels from Scholastic Press. An additional $200,000 in private-sector funding is still being sought to fulfill the grant’s 10 percent match requirement.

UC Irvine’s partners in administering the grant are the Norwalk-La Mirada Unified School District; Hacienda La Puente Unified School District; Santa Barbara Unified School District; North County Professional Development Federation; South Coast Writing Project; California State University, Los Angeles Writing Project; California State University, San Marcos Writing Project; SRI International Center for Education Policy; and National Writing Project.

About the University of California, Irvine: Located in coastal Orange County, near a thriving employment hub in one of the nation’s safest cities, UC Irvine was founded in 1965. One of only 62 members of the Association of American Universities, it’s ranked first among U.S. universities under 50 years old by the London-based Times Higher Education. The campus has produced three Nobel laureates and is known for its academic achievement, premier research, innovation and anteater mascot. Led by Chancellor Michael Drake since 2005, UC Irvine has more than 28,000 students and offers 192 degree programs. It’s Orange County’s second-largest employer, contributing $4.3 billion annually to the local economy.

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