learning language

Critics: Lack of diversity in Indiana dual language policy is a lost opportunity

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
Zoe Roman, a kindergartener in Global Prep Academy's dual language program, fills in a writing worksheet.

When Mariama Carson was a teacher in Pike Township, she saw firsthand how the heritage of her Spanish-speaking students was constantly being brushed to the side as they were encouraged to learn English.

“What we were doing was pushing down anything other than English,” said Carson. “We have students who are native Spanish-speakers who cannot read or write or send an email or text correctly to their own family members. That is wrong.”

So Carson decided to do something about it: She created a dual language school called Global Prep Academy where kids would learn half the day in English and half the day in Spanish as a new innovation charter school in Indianapolis Public Schools.

The dual-language method of immersing students in their native language for part of their class time and in English for another part is growing in popularity across the country as studies show it’s one of the most effective ways to help non-English speaking children master English while gaining the ability to read and write in their native language.

Read: 20 years of Spanish immersion make Lawrence Township a model for Indiana

The programs are also popular with parents of English-speaking children who want their kids to learn a second language from a young age, so Indiana launched a pilot program two years ago that made funds available to schools that wanted to create or expand dual language programs.

Global Prep, which is located in the School 44 building on the city’s west side, was one of nine schools that split $1 million in funding over two years for the programs.

But critics say the money isn’t being used as effectively as it could be because several of the schools that received the funds enroll mostly English-speaking kids.

"The research that is often referred to to sell these programs or to popularize them … is actually the research that applies to progress that includes English-learners,"Barbara Kennedy, Center for Applied Linguistics

That means the money isn’t helping as many children learn English as it could. It’s also not harnessing the full potential of dual language programs to help English-speaking children learn a language like Spanish from being around peers who speak that language at home.

That’s a lost opportunity, said Barbara Kennedy, director of dual language and bilingual education services for the Center for Applied Linguistics, a national nonprofit that researches and advocates for language learning in education.

“The research that is often referred to to sell these programs or to popularize them … is actually the research that applies to progress that includes English-learners,” Kennedy said.

Studies of dual language programs conducted over the better part of the past decade have shown that “two-way” language immersion programs that mix students from different backgrounds post strong academic results for all students involved, due in part because students can serve as models for each other.

But when Indiana lawmakers created the dual language grant program in 2015, they put few restrictions on the money, making no requirements that funds go to schools with high numbers of students learning English. Class makeup was never mentioned in the law that created the program or emphasized in discussions surrounding its passage. The only requirement was that programs start in kindergarten or first grade and divide instructional time so that students spend half of their class time speaking English and the other half speaking another language.

As a result Global Prep and another new program in Marion County, Warren Township’s Pleasant Run Elementary School, are the only grant recipients currently making a point of enrolling equal numbers of English-learners and native English-speakers — the ratio that experts say is the ideal mix for programs like these.

Kindergarten students at Global Prep Academy.
PHOTO: Photo by Shaina Cavazos/Chalkbeat
The students learn to identify shapes and compare and contrast them by size, number of sides and color.
Kindergarten students at Global Prep Academy.
PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
Kindergarten students at Global Prep Academy work on sorting by name. Their teacher looks on as each student takes a turn.
A kindergarten class at Global Prep Academy's dual language program gather for a lesson in sorting.
PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
A kindergarten class at Global Prep Academy’s dual language program gather for a lesson in sorting.
Three others in Goshen, Logansport and West Noble have not fully launched their two-way programs, but the schools enroll about 30 percent of students from households where English is not the primary language and could end up with programs with more equal ratios of kids. The other four enroll primarily English-speaking kids.

The four schools with mostly native English-speaking kids took slightly more than half of the $1 million in funding — $532,792 — but enrolled small numbers of English learners, between 0.5 percent and 12.2 percent.

That’s a dynamic that upsets researchers like Trish Morita-Mullaney from Purdue University.

“Dual language immersion is to historically repair harm to those communities,” Morita-Mullaney said. “Otherwise it’s … just benefitting people who are already benefitting.”

The grant recipients aren’t doing anything wrong, but advocates like Morita-Mullaney and Carson are hoping that if lawmakers next year discuss the possibility of extending the grant program, they’ll consider including incentives for schools that target a mix of kids from different language backgrounds.

“If culture and language matter, as we know it does, we have to make sure we are equalizing opportunities for all kids,” said Carson. “Dual-language programs initially were set up for Spanish-speaking kids.”

When dual language dollars go to schools where most students speak English, she said, there’s a danger that the programs could become little more than an enrichment program for already advantaged children who want to boast foreign language proficiency on their college applications.

“It wasn’t for these kids to get this economic advantage and now they’re bilingual,” Carson said. “It was from an equity standpoint, and that is who these programs should be serving.”

Not everyone shares this view, however.

It can be difficult politically for states like Indiana, where just 4.8 percent of students are English learners, to restrict funding for popular programs to schools that have a high number of immigrants.

One of last year’s grant recipients was a school in rural Batesville that got a little more than $172,000 to start a Mandarin immersion program.

Students at Batesville Elementary School learn in a small group from their teacher. The class is part of a language immersion program in Mandarin.
PHOTO: Melissa Burton
Students at Batesville Elementary School learn in a small group from their teacher. The class is part of a language immersion program in Mandarin.

Melissa Burton, director of student learning in Batesville said she knows the students in her program aren’t diverse. Nearly all of the district’s elementary school students — 97 percent — are white and the population of English-learners is decreasing, but dual langauge is a way for Batesville to bring cultural knowledge and understanding to kids who might otherwise never encounter a culture different from their own.

“I’m just so thrilled that a tiny little town like Batesville, at a small school, that we can give our students this opportunity,” Burton said. “It’s important that kids know a second language … I’m hoping (the program) draws more diverse enrollment to our school corporation that may not happen just because of our location.”

"It’s about exploring culture and building relationships, and in a place where we don’t have a lot of diversity, it’s even more important to do those things. This program will change the culture of our school."Melissa Burton, Batesville Community Schools

Batesville’s program currently enrolls about 50 kindergarteners in two classes. Each year, the district plans to add grades until the program serves kindergarten to fifth grade. As kids grow into middle and high school, the district is planning to add Chinese literacy classes and as well as classes taught in Mandarin so students can keep up their skills. The district also plans to offer Chinese culture classes for all students in the district.

“Every teacher will be a Chinese culture teacher,” Burton said. “It’s not just about the language. It’s about exploring culture and building relationships, and in a place where we don’t have a lot of diversity, it’s even more important to do those things. This program will change the culture of our school.”

Conversations about whether money for dual language programs should target children who are learning English have not gotten much attention in the statehouse since it passed. In fact, it’s not even clear at the moment that any money will be set aside in next year’s budget for dual language programs.

Peggy Mayfield, R-Martinsville, who originally championed the grant program law, says she has no plans to reintroduce any specific bills next year to extend it — which means targeted funds for the programs is running out.

The state says it’s working to help the nine participating schools find ways to be more efficient and sustain their programs, but Mayfield says she hopes funding doesn’t dry up.

“If this is something that is highly desired by parents and teachers and children, we need to give a close look to see how can we make this an ongoing thing,” Mayfield said.

A kindergarten student reaches for crayons during a lesson at Global Prep Academy. The school has a Spanish dual language program for grades K-2.
PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
A kindergarten student reaches for crayons during a lesson at Global Prep Academy. The school has a Spanish dual language program for grades K-2.

Kim Park, who runs the program in Warren, isn’t too worried that the grant program is ending. Her school is determined to find the money to continue and has been thoughtful about buying books, software and other materials that can last for multiple years.

Nathan Williamson who is the director of early learning and intervention with the education department, said the state hopes the success and demand for dual language immersion classes is enough to encourage the legislature to continue the grants.

But for some, it’s more personal.

Cesar Roman, a parent of a Global prep student, wants to see policymakers ensure the programs stick around — and not just because his daughter Zoe is in one. A native Spanish-speaker, Roman learned in a dual language classroom as a child growing up in East Chicago.

“I have seen the benefits first-hand,” Roman said. “You do have to make some sort of policy or mandate to make sure that there is equity in the way that the funds are being distributed and that learning is taking place for all students.”

A new responsibility

In first for Aurora, charter school to run center for special education students

Students and staffers at Rocky Mountain Prep charter school in Denver cheer in 2012. (Photo by The Denver Post)

When Rocky Mountain Prep replaces Fletcher Community School in Aurora, the charter school will become the first in the district to operate a center for students with special needs.

As a district-run school, Fletcher for years has operated a regional program for students with autism. After the district decided last year to phase out the low-performing school and replace it with a charter school, conversations began about the fate of the program.

“From the beginning we’ve been really open and consistently stated that we would be excited to take it on if that’s what the district felt was best,” said James Cryan, CEO of Rocky Mountain Prep. He said serving all students including those with special needs fits into the charter’s mission.

Now, district and charter officials have worked out a transition plan that will give the charter school a year to prepare — including hiring a new director to oversee the special needs programs and research best practices — to take over the center by fall of 2019.

“We recognize the good work that’s been happening at that center program,” Cryan said. “It’s a program that’s serving students really well.”

The program at Fletcher this year served 21 students with autism that come from the surrounding neighborhoods. Aurora Public Schools has 17 autism center classrooms spread across the district at district-operated schools.

Aurora officials last year started exploring how charters can share the responsibility of serving students with special needs, but there was no strategy or process behind the work, said Jennifer Gutierrez, director of student services.

“This is our opportunity to do this,” Gutierrez said. “I anticipate that down the road if we have more charters to come aboard that this might be something we would explore.”

She said having the option of putting a program in a charter school could be especially useful in neighborhoods with crowded schools.

“We continue to have space issues,” Gutierrez said. “If we need a targeted clustered program in a certain neighborhood, it can be really hard to find classroom space.”

Rocky Mountain Prep began phasing in its program at Fletcher in the 2016-17 school year by operating the school’s preschool. In the fall, the charter will take over the kindergarten through second grade classrooms, and by the fall of 2019, the charter will run the entire school.

As Rocky Mountain Prep takes over more grades, the school will need to train teachers so they can help integrate students from the autism center when their individual plan calls for them to be in a general population classrooms some or most of the time.

Officials have yet to decide how much the charter school will lean on district services provided to district-run schools operating special needs programs, including teacher training, coaching and consultants.

The charter is also still looking for funding to hire the director that would oversee special services and research best practices for running the program.

That work will also include figuring out if the model of the center program will change or stay the same. Right now, center programs include classes labeled with a level one through three. In level three classrooms students spend a lot of time in general education classrooms while level one classrooms serve the students that need the most individual attention.

Teachers work together across the levels to help move students, if possible, from one level to the next — or, potentially, back to a general education classroom in their neighborhood school.

What will look different at the center program is that it will have the Rocky Mountain Prep model. That includes the uniforms, having students respond to their classmates with hand signals during group instruction and school-wide cheers or meetings instilling the core values that make up the charter’s model.

“We consider all of our students to be our scholars,” Cryan said. “We integrate all students into our model.”

It won’t be the first time the Denver-based elementary charter school network will be running a program for students with special needs.

In one of its Denver schools, Rocky Mountain Prep began operating a center program for students with multi-intensive severe special needs this year after the district asked them to.

In recent years, Denver Public Schools has asked its charter schools to operate special education centers in return for access to district real estate, part of a “collaboration compact.”

Across the country, research has shown charter schools do not educate a proportionate share of special education students. DPS says that within three years, it expects Denver to be the first city in the country to provide equitable access to charter schools for students with significant disabilities.

Cryan said Rocky Mountain Prep has learned general lessons from running the program in Denver that will help plan ahead for operating the program in Aurora, most importantly he said it’s why he asked for a planning year.

“We’ve also learned that having strong and consistent leadership really has an impact,” Cryan said. “And we really want to take time to learn best practices.”

District staff on Tuesday updated the Aurora school board on the overall transition of the school, including pointing to staff surveys that show school teachers and employees were happy with the changes.

District staff said the district plans to use the experience at Fletcher to create a process for any future school turnarounds involving changing a school’s management.

fact-finding mission

Signal Mountain leaders look to Shelby County as model for school district secession

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
From left: Bartlett City Schools Director David Stephens and Lakeland School System Director Ted Horrell update state legislators on their new districts in 2015.

A cluster of towns that broke off from Shelby County Schools to create their own school systems in 2014 is about to host visitors from another Tennessee town looking into the viability of leaving Hamilton County Schools.

A committee from Signal Mountain, on the outskirts of Chattanooga, is scheduled next week to visit with leaders from Arlington, Bartlett, Collierville, Millington and Germantown. Along with Lakeland, the six towns have just completed a third year of operating their own school systems, just outside of Memphis.

Signal Mountain is in its second year of discussions about a possible pullout from the Chattanooga-based district. The community has three of Hamilton County’s higher-performing schools, as well as fewer poor and minority students. Its Town Council created the committee in January to look into the feasibility of creating a separate district, which would siphon off both students and revenue from Hamilton County Schools.

As part of their visit, the seven-member panel will hold open meetings with municipality leaders at Arlington High School. Signal Mountain Mayor Chris Howley and Councilwoman Amy Speek are scheduled to join the sessions.

“We felt it was valuable for us to meet with board members and school officials to gain insight on how the process went, what they learned, what they might do differently,” said committee chairman John Friedl.

“We’re not trying to reinvent the wheel,” he added.

The visit will come days after Shelby County’s secessions were spotlighted in a national report on the trend of wealthier and whiter communities to splinter off from larger school systems that are poorer and more diverse. The report was crafted by EdBuild, a nonprofit research group that focuses on school funding and equity. The report also listed Signal Mountain among nine towns across the nation that are actively pursuing pullouts.

The town of Red Bank, which is just east of Signal Mountain, also recently announced it will investigate launching a separate district.

If Signal Mountain residents vote eventually to create their own school system, they would use the same Tennessee law that allowed municipality voters in Shelby County to exit Tennessee’s largest district. The law, which EdBuild calls one of the most permissive in the nation, allows a town with at least 1,500 students to pull out without the approval of the district it leaves behind or consideration of the impact on racial or socioeconomic equity.

Signal Mountain leaders will focus next week on lessons learned by leaders in Shelby County.

After breaking off in 2014, the municipalities gained about 30,000 students, 33 schools and all of the challenges that come with launching new school systems. That includes funding, staffing and facilities. “We all started out with a central office staff of one, … and we had to build from there,” Millington Municipal Schools Director David Roper said during a 2015 presentation to state lawmakers.

The Shelby County breakaway also ended up in court over charges that the exit was racially motivated. But a federal judge eventually dismissed that lawsuit by Shelby County Schools.

The Signal Mountain exploration also has been met with some community resistance. A group called Stay with HCSD is advocating staying with Hamilton County Schools.

You can view the full schedule of Signal Mountain leaders’ visit below: