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.”

try try again

Why this Bronx middle school believes in second — and third — chances

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Vincent Gassetto, the principal M.S. 343, hugs a staff member after winning the Teaching Matters prize in July 2017.

Teachers at M.S. 343 in the South Bronx had a problem: Their lessons weren’t sticking.

Students initially would test well on fundamental concepts — such as multi-digit long division or calculating the rate of change. But that knowledge seemed to melt away on follow-up exams just months or even weeks later.

The solution that teachers developed, based on providing constant feedback to students and encouraging regular collaboration among staff, has helped M.S. 343 beat district averages on standardized tests. It has also landed the school a $25,000 prize.

This week, M.S. 343 won the Elizabeth Rohatyn Prize, which is awarded to public schools that foster great teaching. Presented by the nonprofit Teaching Matters, the award money will go toward building a digital platform that students and teachers can use to track their progress from anywhere, at any time.

The work at M.S. 343 starts with determining which skills teachers will emphasize and test throughout the year. Working together, teachers draw on what they already know about which concepts are most likely to trip students up, contribute to success in later grades or appear on standardized tests. A key concept could be understanding ratios in sixth grade or mastering scientific notation by eighth grade.

“It’s all in the teachers’ hands,” said Principal Vincent Gassetto.

Students are regularly tested with “learning targets.” But they’re also given three chances to prove they’ve mastered the skills. Gassetto said the approach is backed by neuroscience, which suggests the best way to learn is to use the knowledge multiple times, instead of cramming for a single test.

“That actually tells the brain: You’re being tested on this, it’s important. And that stores it in a part of the brain that’s easily retrievable,” he said.

Only the highest score will be recorded, which serves a different purpose: boosting students’ confidence in themselves as learners.

“We’re celebrating their progress, not necessarily the end result,” math teacher Lola Dupuy explained in a video the school produced. “It can be very confusing for a student to receive a failing grade and very discouraging for them if they don’t know … what they’re doing wrong and what they need to do to improve it.”

In between tests, each department comes together to analyze students’ answers. They zero in on common misconceptions and come up with a list of questions for students to ask themselves when reviewing their work.

Using the questions as a guide, it’s up to the students to figure out where they went wrong, often by working in groups with peers with varying skill levels.

“Students are more engaged in their work and the outcomes are better because they’re self-reflecting,” Dupuy said.

M.S. 343’s approach also gets at a common knock on testing: The results are rarely used to improve teaching and students often don’t have the opportunity to learn from their mistakes. At M.S. 343, teachers spend entire weeks meeting as a team to go over results and fine-tune their instruction. That time, Gassetto said, is a valuable resource.

“Most of the time, when you give a big assessment,” Gassetto said, “you’re testing, but for what purpose? We don’t do that. If we’re going to ask kids to sit down and take an assessment, we need to look at it and get it back to them right away, so it’s useful.”

promoting choice

Betsy DeVos defends vouchers and slams AFT in her speech to conservatives

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos rallied a conservative crowd in Denver on Thursday, criticizing teachers unions and local protesters and defending private-school vouchers as a way to help disadvantaged students.

“Our opponents, the defenders of the status quo, only protest those capable of implementing real change,” DeVos told members of the American Legislative Exchange Council, an influential conservative group that helps shape legislative policy across the country. “You represent real change.”

DeVos delivered the keynote speech at the ALEC meeting, where she reiterated her support for local control of schools and school choice. Citing the conservative former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, she said education should be about individual students and families, not school systems.

“Lady Thatcher regretted that too many seem to blame all their problems on society. But, ‘who is society?’” DeVos asked, quoting Thatcher. “‘There is no such thing!’”

The American Federation of Teachers, she said, has exactly the opposite idea.

“Parents have seen that defenders of the status quo don’t have their kids’ interests at heart,” she said.

AFT President Randi Weingarten threw punches of her own Thursday, calling private school vouchers “only slightly more polite cousins of segregation” in a Washington, D.C. speech.

DeVos highlighted states that have introduced vouchers or new school-choice programs including North Carolina, Kentucky and Arizona. Indiana — home to the nation’s largest voucher program — also won praise.

Data from existing voucher programs may have sparked the one critical question DeVos faced, during a brief sit-down after her speech. Legislators want to know how to respond to complaints that voucher programs only help wealthy families, the moderator, an Arizona lawmaker, told DeVos.

In Indiana, for instance, vouchers are increasingly popular in wealthy school districts and among families whose students had not previously attended public school.

“I just dismiss that as a patently false argument,” DeVos said. “Wealthy people already have choice. They’re making choices every day, every year, by moving somewhere where they determine the schools are right for their children or by paying tuition if they haven’t moved somewhere.”

Earlier this year, DeVos criticized Denver as not offering enough school choice because Colorado does not have private school vouchers. Still, presenters at the conference Thursday introduced Denver to ALEC members — conservative legislators, business leaders and lobbyists — as “living proof” that charter schools and competition work.

A local Denver school board candidate, Tay Anderson, and state union leaders held a protest Wednesday ahead of DeVos’s speech. Attendees said they were concerned that ALEC’s efforts, and DeVos’s focus on vouchers and school choice, would hurt public schools.

DeVos didn’t make mention of Denver or Colorado in her speech Thursday, but she briefly referenced the protest.

“I consider the excitement a badge of honor, and so should you,” she said.