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How Katy ISD leveled-up their PD to improve newcomer support across the district

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As our communities become more diverse, schools play a vital role in ensuring that every student has an equal opportunity to succeed. Among the unique challenges that educators face, meeting the needs of newcomer students stands out as a priority. These students, who have recently immigrated to our country, often face language barriers, cultural adjustments, and emotional challenges that can hinder their educational journey. However, despite recognizing the importance of addressing their unique needs, schools often struggle to equip their teachers with the necessary tools and support to effectively guide and nurture these students.

We sat down with Kimberly Mitchell, Instructional Officer for Secondary ESL at Katy ISD to talk about how the challenge her district was facing with their newcomer program turned into an opportunity, and how other districts can learn from their journey. From change management to rolling out PD programs with very little time, Kimberly shares a wealth of ideas and resources that will encourage you to rethink traditional newcomer programs and energize teachers in the face of significant transitions

Listen to the entire conversation here, and find an overview of the approach below.

The challenge:

For the past 18 years, Katy ISD in Texas has had its own junior high newcomer centers. It began with one, and as the number of newcomer students in the district grew, they expanded to two and eventually three centers. Their impressive program is widely recognized and representatives from outside districts would even visit and learn how to recreate something similar of their own.

However, post-pandemic the number of newcomer students rapidly fluctuated, and ultimately the district decided to dissolve the newcomer centers and instead, every junior high would have its own newcomer program.

“[That decision] was late in the school year, so I can only imagine the administrators and how they were feeling…they had already set up their master schedules for the next year, done their hiring for the next year,” shares Mitchell. “Now they're needing to add courses to the master schedule. They're needing to add more teachers. All of that was tough.”

The approach:

Mitchell and her team recognized the importance of setting the right tone and atmosphere at the campuses from the beginning. They determined that the place to start was with campus leadership, as they would be able to address any fear and concern teachers might have. But they would have to be strategic and efficient with the small amount of preparation time they had.

“All of the knowledge that there is to share about teaching students from many other countries with many different cultures and many different languages, how do we bring that down to just two half-day trainings here at the very end of the year for campus administrators?” Mitchell recalls wondering.

“I know that they're worried about the master schedule, I know that they're worried about hiring, and those very tangible logistical pieces. But we want them to feel what it's like to be a newcomer, first and foremost. We want the students first in their minds."

The professional development plan

After the initial training for school leadership, their next focus was on providing ongoing support and training for the teachers. The district worked with members of Seidlitz Education, including Dr. Carol Salva, and Pam Broussard from Leading ELLs as consultants when creating their two-day training toolkit and year-long PD plan.

“We wanted to be able to then during the school year, provide ongoing professional development through quarterly PLCs that were arranged by content so they could really plan and implement their strategies with others who are teaching the same content area,” Mitchell explains. 

Salva was instrumental in the development and execution of these professional development sessions throughout the year.

“In the very initial planning that we did with her, we broke it down to just three strategies that come from seven steps from Seidlitz Education that we are going to focus on for our newcomer classrooms across content areas. And this is the message we're going to send every single time we are providing professional development regardless of who it is, if it's administrators, if it's paraprofessionals, if it's teachers,” shares Mitchell.

The results:

Being focused on those few key strategies and ensuring that the training was consistent and actionable has changed a situation from overwhelming to empowering.

“We have teachers who really have taken to it and are implementing those strategies in the classroom and have just been so empowered. And so it's great to see the work that they're doing with them,” says Mitchell. 

Another key factor for successful implementation of the strategies for newcomers is what Mitchell calls “carry through” - when leadership is trained in the same strategies as the teachers and is able to ensure consistency.

“We've seen the greatest impact on the campus by leadership where there is a principal, for example, who is engaged because they were attending our leadership sessions. I had one tell me, ‘When I go into the newcomer classroom, I know what I'm looking for. I know what it should look like because of those sessions.’ And so he's able to help facilitate those conversations as a leader on his campus.”

Finally, we discuss the biggest benefits that she has observed in the district since the shift to on campus newcomer classes. Mitchell shares that the teachers have responded overwhelmingly with positivity since adding newcomers to their classrooms.

“I went to visit a campus that is new to having newcomers this year, and I was literally bombarded by staff when I came in the door, starting with the principal. Just wanted to tell me how much they love having newcomers on their campus, how great it is,” Mitchell says. 

“We have reports from our campus leadership in February at our last leadership training. They wrote down what it is that they are loving about this change. And they consistently wrote down something related to working together as a team and having built a community around these students and meeting their needs. So that concern about staff feeling capable and students feeling immediately welcomed upon arriving is gone.”

Lastly, she shares another direct benefit for students since dissolving their newcomer centers.

“The pros to having our students across the junior highs at their home campuses is they are part of that campus from day one. They're not at a temporary campus and then they will eventually get to the one they're supposed to be at. This is home. If the mascot's Huskies, we're Huskies from day one.They’re very involved in sports and in clubs, and they're really intermingling well with all groups of students. Whereas when it was a newcomer center, they tended to stay with that group throughout the day.”

Overall, Mitchell and her team have gleaned some valuable learnings from a challenging situation, which she hopes to apply to future plans as well.

“This process has taught me a lot about the power in really strategically planning for change and getting everybody on board. We have other initiatives where we're utilizing that mindset moving forward next year outside of newcomers. So it's been great for changing that lens and that mindset for me. And ultimately, a reminder that we have this amazing team who pulled it all off.”

Kimberly Mitchell holds a Bachelor of Arts in Literature and a Master’s of Education in Curriculum and Instruction with an emphasis on literacy from the University of Texas at Arlington. She began her career in Alvin, Texas teaching English as a Second Language at the high school and junior high levels. Since then she has worked in the Office of Other Languages for Katy ISD in Texas. Currently, she is the Instructional Officer for Secondary ESL. She is passionate about supporting campus staff in effectively providing ESL program services for secondary emergent bilingual students.