On Friday, August 16th, 2002, I was invited to join
the staff of Riley Elementary School in Great Bend,
Kansas, for their annual "Home Welcome Visits."
Classroom teachers, each accompanied by
another member of the Riley staff, stopped by the
homes of all 20 of their new students to let them know
who their teacher would be, remind them that school
starts on Monday and encourage them to get ready
for some exciting learning!
The Riley School was named for Major General Bennett
C. Riley, who in 1829 led the first military escort along the
famous Santa Fe Trail, an important commercial route for
Americans and Mexicans. A trading
post, Fort Zarah, was built at Great Bend in 1855, allowing the
expansion of the Santa Fe Trail farther west, along
what today is Highway 56, through Dodge City, Kansas,
and Highway 50, through Garden City, Kansas.
important institution named in honor of
the famous military man is Fort Riley, built a little
further north in 1853
to protect trade and migration along the Santa Fe
as well as the Oregon trails. Fort Riley, still a key
U.S. military outpost today, protected the first
railroad lines laid across Kansas, after the end
of the Civil War in 1865. In that conflict, Fort Riley
served the Union Army because Kansas entered
the Union in 1861 as a "Free State."
Great Bend and Kansans today find themselves at
the center of another important national struggle, over
America's growing cultural diversity and how to
educate new English language learners in our
public schools. The challenge for Riley Elementary
School has been analagous to that faced by the
brave soldiers of Fort Riley and by Major
General Riley himself years ago: to safeguard the
educational journey for a new generation of
migrants who face severe hardships as they
attempt to claim their portion in the American
Of Riley's 424 students (grades K-6) in the 2001-2002
school year, 79 percent were Hispanic and 96 percent,
categorized as "economically disadvantaged students."
In many of the homes our team visited on Friday the
parent could speak very little if any English. Yet the
school is outperforming its peers across America
and there is a contagious air of enthusiasm among all
the instructional and support staff, led by a super-enthusiastic
principal, Ruth Heinrichs, who shared her 5-year school
improvement plan with me last week when I visited.
"We are very excited about what is happening at Riley,"
said Ms. Heinrichs, who credits school-wide prevention,
family-support teams, "21st Century" after-school clubs
and a fully embraced "Success For All
reading program (and SFA math now being implemented, too).
English language learners at Riley are in regular classes
from day one, except for what is initially an hour and a half
daily of ESL (during science and social studies) with as much
bilingual Spanish support as they need. The ESL classroom
has a divider separating the early ESL bilingual side, with
a native Spanish-speaking teacher, from the
later ESL all-English side, with a native English-speaking
Within just a few weeks, new ELLs at Riley are usually
beginning to participate with some confidence in their
regular classes, according to Principal Heinrichs. "The
affective filter throughout our whole school is very low,"
she explained. "The older kids often don't need any ESL
after one year, younger kids sometimes need it a little
longer." In addition, because a number of students at
the school can speak Spanish, new students always
have "peer interpreters" ready to help them in English-intensive
classes like science, language arts and social studies.
Another key feature of Riley's approach to building
a positive, challenging and cooperative learning community
in their school is the hour and a half, from 9:45 to 11:15,
every day for the SFA reading program. Riley's SFA program
takes just the stories from Great Bend USD 428's basal
readers, and expands on these using the "Success For
rotating through a strict sequence of learning styles,
following scripted teacher instructions for sparking
discussions about what students read and building
For this nearly sacred part of Riley's
daily routine, students are grouped not
by their current grade level or ability, but by "instructional
levels," from a non-English speaking level
all the way up to a 9th grade reading level.
Everyone in the school participates, including
Title I personnel, reading recovery specialists
and librarians, so the teacher/student ratio
is greatly improved during this reading time.
At 8-week intervals, students are retested
and regrouped, according to Principal Heinrichs.
The T-shirt I received on "Home Welcome
Visits" day proudly proclaims that Riley is
"The School That Reads!" Mrs. Heinrichs
told me that in the hallways of the school
you can hear students talking to each other
about books they are reading, with great
enthusiasm and interest, as if a child more like
what we might imagine were discussing a
new videogame or MTV music video.
When Kansas Governor Bill Graves and
Republican gubernatorial candidate Dave
Kerr recently observed SFA reading at
Riley, recounted Mrs. Heinrichs, one student
asked another to support an opinion he had
just stated by providing evidence from the
text they had been reading. "Great!," said
Mr. Kerr, according to Principal Heinrichs.
"They're raising a bunch of lawyers here."
The home visits on Friday gave further
evidence that something out of the ordinary
is going on at Riley Elementary School.
In most cases, students' eyes brightened
when we reminded them that classes would
start on Monday morning. "I can't wait"
was a typical comment, or "I already know
what I'm going to wear." According to my teammates,
computer coordinator Kathy Hayes and 5th
grade teacher Phil Heekey, this was all the
more remarkable given that 250 Riley students
took advantage of a hugely popular summer
school program, so these kids had only been
at home for four weeks since that ended.
Future projects for Great Bend's USD 428,
which includes Riley, four other public
elementary schools, a parochial school,
a middle school and a high school, are
going to deal with ensuring a smooth
transition for Riley graduates into a
larger cross-section of Great Bend in
grades 7 through 12. Some of this is
happening naturally, though, explained
Ruth Heinrichs. "The principal at Great
Bend Middle School keeps hiring away
my teachers," she said, smiling,
"so the students we send there are going
to be seeing some familiar faces."
It looks like the modern Santa Fe
Trail leads through Riley Elementary
School in Great Bend, Kansas, where
teachers and the entire staff are determined
to give the young minds in their care safe
passage to full participation in our ever-more
diverse American society.
Reported by Robb Scott
2002 ESL MiniConference Online