Interview with Dawn Samples of Lexington School District

Interview with Dawn Samples of Lexington School District

Imagine that your dream came true. 

Your district superintendent reads deeply and thoughtfully about World Languages and says, “OK, let’s provide proficiency-based language learning to every student in the district. Let’s make sure that at least 75% of graduates achieve at least Intermediate proficiency. Then World Languages can be a model for other content areas.”

This is just what Dawn Samples’ superintendent in Lexington, S.C. told her in 2009.

Be careful what you wish for. Dawn can tell that a dream can turn into a nightmare. As District World Language Coordinator, it was Dawn’s job to make the vision of World Language proficiency for all in the Lexington Schools District’s “Schools of the Future” initiative a reality. 

“It was not fun at first,” she says. “Everything needed to change. Everything.”

Convincing veteran teachers to depart from their grammar-centered, textbook-driven ways was a significant hurdle. “We got some pushback as we began transitioning from traditional grading to scoring guides and performance assessments,” says Dawn. “Then, after a few years’ transition, we required them to do that. Some teachers just couldn’t make the adjustment and left. It was sad.” 

Implementing immersion programs meant displacing some monolingual teachers with bilingual teachers. Then she had to take on the most sacred cow of all — the master schedule — to accommodate expanded language instruction. Teachers were upset; students were confused; principals were furious. 

“I really had a target on my back,” she says. “I was not a popular person.”

Fast-forward to 2017. 

Every student from third grade on is learning a language. Grades and advancement are based on results from proficiency and performance assessments. Every class is built around Integrated Performance Assessments (IPAs). World Languages are woven into the identity and culture of the district. About 60% of students reach Intermediate proficiency by graduation, putting the district within reach of its goal of 75% by 2020. 

Today, the district offers seven K-12 immersion programs in Spanish, Chinese, French, and German. For all other students, Lexington’s seventeen elementary schools offer Spanish FLES programs starting in third grade. In middle school, students can switch to another language if they wish. All programs measure student performance on a 20-point proficiency scale adapted from the ACTFL Proficiency Guidelines. Students only advance to higher levels if they demonstrate appropriate proficiency levels on this scale. IPAs at the end of each unit serve as mileposts, and year-end STAMP tests give summative evaluations of individual and program performance on the standard ACTFL scale.

“Getting everyone focused on performance outcomes has made all the difference,” says Dawn. “Teachers get it, kids get it, parents get it.”

Plenty of challenges remain, of course. Staffing is always an issue, especially in immersion, and the demanding nature of Lexington’s proficiency-based approach is not for everyone. Dawn also has to keep existing staff up to date on instructional and assessment practices. Despite the challenges, Lexington’s ambitious Schools of the Future initiative is moving steadily towards its goal. 

So the dream may not be fully realized quite yet, but it's coming.