Language Partners

Bilingual programs get the royal treatment

PHOTO: Jessica Glazer
Queen Letizia of Spain speaks with Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña at Dos Puentes Elementary School.

It’s not often that an actual queen visits a city elementary school.

On Monday, Queen Letizia of Spain stopped by P.S. 103 Dos Puentes Elementary School, one of four city schools newly added to a network of U.S. schools with Spanish immersion programs. The visit, complete with balloons and a song-and-dance performance, added bit of royal flair to Chancellor Carmen Fariña’s continued focus on dual language programs and English language learners.

“My hope is to double and triple the number of schools involved in bilingualism and biculturalism,” the chancellor said. Specifically, Fariña said that she wants to add 40 new dual language programs across the city, though she didn’t provide a timeline for that plan.

One in seven students in the city school system—more than 159,000 students—is an English language learner, and those students tend to struggle on state exams. Only 3.4 percent passed this year’s state English exams, as opposed to 28.4 percent of all city students. Spanish is spoken by the largest share of those students, with two-thirds speaking the language at home.

Fariña, who frequently mentions her Spanish heritage, recently appointed Milady Baez to run the office of English language learners, which is now independent from the department that focuses on students with special needs. At events and press conferences, the chancellor has also mentioned the ways in which schools can better include parents who aren’t English-proficient.

In recent years, most English language learners have been in classrooms that focus on English-language instruction. But dual-language programs—in which some lessons are taught in English and other lessons are taught in another language, with the goal of students gaining fluency in both—have been increasing in popularity. City schools offer more than 480 bilingual programs with languages including Spanish, Mandarin or Arabic.

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PHOTO: Jessica Glazer
Students dance during a ceremony with the Queen of Spain and the school chancellor.

With the increase in dual-language programs comes a shortage of good texts to use, which had been the case for Alida Grafals, an assistant principal at P.S. 75 Emily Dickinson in the Upper East Side. P.S. 75 became the first school in New York state to join the immersion program, known as the International Spanish Academies, in 2012.

“Getting resources in Spanish is very hard,” she said at the Monday event. After her school joined the network, the Spanish government paid for some of her staff to attend a conference and put the school in touch with suppliers to get classroom materials originally written in Spanish, not translated into the language.

“If we’re teaching Spanish, it shouldn’t be translated,” she said.

Ya-ning Hsu, a professor at the Teachers College at Columbia University who has spoken with the Department of Education about how best to run dual-language programs, noted that there are even fewer classroom resources for languages other than Spanish, like Chinese.

“Teachers have to write their own books for children to read,” Hsu said. “We need more manpower, more resources.”

M.S. 223, The Laboratory School of Finance and Technology; and M.S. M247 Dual Language Middle School in the Upper West Side were also added the program.

father knows best

How a brush with death convinced one dad to get his diploma, with a boost from the Fatherhood Academy

PHOTO: Courtesy of Steven Robles
Steven Robles with his family

Steven Robles thought he might not live to see his daughter’s birth.

In May 2016, the 20-year-old was in the hospital after being shot during what he described as an argument in his neighborhood.

A year later, Robles just graduated from City University of New York’s Fatherhood Academy. He passed his high school equivalency exam and is happily celebrating his daughter Avare’s 8-month birthday.

“That conflict is what got me into the program, and what happened to me before she was born motivated me to stay in the program,” Robles said. “It motivated me to manage to pass my GED.”

Robles grew up in Brownsville, Brooklyn and attended Franklin K. Lane High School. Though he liked his teachers, Robles said other students at the school were not “mature enough,” and the disorderly school environment made it hard for him to concentrate.

A quiet student, Robles said teachers would often overlook his presence in the classroom. Between that and friction with other classmates, Robles lost interest in school.

“My parents didn’t try to help me, either,” Robles said. “Nobody really tried to help me with that school, so I just stopped going.”

It was a whole different experience for him once he arrived at the Fatherhood Academy at LaGuardia Community College, a program run by CUNY for unemployed and underemployed fathers ages 18 through 28. The Academy, now partnering with the New York City Housing Authority at its LaGuardia location, was launched in 2012 and also has programs at Hostos and Kingsborough Community Colleges.

“I have interviewed many of the men who come into the program and I often ask the question, ‘What brought you here?'” said Raheem Brooks, program manager of the Fatherhood Academy at LaGuardia Community College. “Mostly every young man says, ‘I’m here because I want to create a better life for my child than I had.’ So, I think the main theme of the program is that we help promote intergenerational change.”

At the LaGuardia branch, 30 students attend classes three times a week over the course of 16 weeks. Subjects include mathematics, social studies, and writing for students seeking to get their high school equivalency diplomas. Students also attend workshops run by counselors who guide them in professional development and parenting.

Robles found out about the program after seeing a flier for it in his social worker’s office at Graham Windham, a family support services organization. Curious to see what the Academy offered, he called to find out more and officially enrolled after passing a test to prove he could read above seventh-grade level.

“Before the Academy, I was not really into school at all,” Robles said. “But when I got there, it just changed my life. In this program, I didn’t know anybody there, there were no distractions. It made me more focused, and I just really wanted to get my GED and education.”

What helped Robles the most was getting to learn from the other fathers in the class, who were going through similar experiences as him.

“Little things I didn’t know, I learned from them because they were also fathers,” Robles said. “I just liked the way they were teaching us.”

In fact, he liked the Academy so much, he doesn’t plan to leave. He is applying to study criminal justice at LaGuardia Community College and to become a mentor for the Academy next year.

Currently, Robles lives with his grandparents, his daughter and the mother of his child. Getting a place for his family is next on his to-do list, he said.

“Avare always has a smile on her face and always puts a smile on my face,” Robles said. “She motivates me to get up and do what I have to do. Anything I could do for her, I will.”

Though school did not play a huge role in his life growing up, that is not what Robles wants for his daughter. He said after participating in the Academy, he wants to make sure Avare stays motivated and in school.

“I hear a lot from people about how they think they can’t do it,” Robles said. “I almost lost my life before my daughter was born and that motivated me. If I could do it, you could do it.”

Behind the brawl

Three things to know about the Tennessee school behind this week’s graduation brawl

PHOTO: Arlington Community Schools
Arlington High School is a 2,000-plus-student school in suburban Shelby County in southwest Tennessee.

Arlington High School is considered the crown jewel of a 3-year-old district in suburban Shelby County, even as its school community deals with the unwelcome attention of several viral videos showing a fight that broke out among adults attending its graduation ceremony.

The brawl, which reportedly began with a dispute over saved seats, detracted from Tuesday’s pomp and circumstance and the more than $30 million in scholarships earned by the school’s Class of 2017. No students were involved.

“It was unfortunate that a couple of adults in the audience exhibited the behavior they did prior to the ceremony beginning and thus has caused a distraction from the celebration of our students’ accomplishments,” Arlington Community Schools Superintendent Tammy Mason said in a statement.

Here are three things to know about the 13-year-old school in northwest Shelby County.

With more than 2,000 students, Arlington is one of the largest high schools in Shelby County and is part of a relatively new district.

It’s the pride of a suburban municipality that is one of six that seceded from Shelby County Schools in 2014 following the merger of the city and county districts the year before. (School district secessions are a national trend, usually of predominantly white communities leaving predominantly black urban school systems.) More than 70 percent of Arlington’s students are white, and 6 percent are considered economically disadvantaged — in stark contrast to the Memphis district where less than 8 percent are white, and almost 60 percent are considered economically disadvantaged.

The school’s graduation rate is high … and climbing.

Last year, after adding interventions for struggling students, the school’s graduation rate jumped a full point to more than 96 percent. Its students taking the ACT college entrance exam scored an average composite of 22.5 out of a possible 36, higher than the state average of 19.9. But only a fifth scored proficient or advanced in math and a third in English language arts during 2015-16, the last school year for which scores are available and a transition year for Tennessee under a new test.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Education Commissioner Candice McQueen visits with students at Arlington High School during a 2016 tour.

The school was in the news last August when Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen visited its campus.

The commissioner spoke with students there to kick off her statewide listening tour that’s focused on ways to get students ready for college and career. McQueen highlighted the school’s extracurricular activities and students’  opportunities to intern for or shadow local professionals. She also complimented Arlington for having an engaged education community.