From biliteracy to bilingual: Adams 14 working on plan for English learners

Four months after taking over management of the Adams 14 school district north of Denver, MGT leaders have submitted a plan to the federal government on how they will educate English learners.

The plan proposes replacing biliteracy programming with a bilingual program, and monitoring how quickly students are becoming fluent in English. The plan would continue with existing curriculum for English learners, and highlights a partnership with Regis University that former superintendent Javier Abrego brought into the district when he ended a previous partnership with a center at the University of Colorado Boulder.

Julie Benmellah, board president of the Colorado Association for Bilingual Education, reviewed the draft of the plan and said she was happy that the plan states that the district values cultural and linguistic diversity, but said the plan didn’t live up to those statements.

“The content feels and looks like a rewrite of the previous plans, and those weren’t implemented, so what makes this one different?” Benmellah said. “It didn’t leave me feeling confident.”

Benmellah, who has been a bilingual educator for more than 20 years, said she was particularly disappointed because she thought an external manager might help the district to do more.

“I expected to see the presence of MGT’s consulting, guidance, and support throughout the plan,” she said, “But what I saw was not that.”

The plan is still a draft, as district officials say they are working with the federal Office for Civil Rights before finalizing it. The district refused to release a copy of the draft before it was finalized, but is now planning a discussion of the plan with the school board Tuesday afternoon.

District officials did not respond to a request for comment Monday.

The Adams 14 school district has around 50% of its students identified as English learners — the highest percent of any district in Colorado. Nearly 10 years ago, complaints from families and staff in the district spurred a federal investigation which found evidence that the district was discriminating against Spanish-speaking families, staff and students, and was violating the civil rights of English learners.

The district in 2014 signed an agreement with the Office for Civil Rights, outlining corrections that must occur to ensure the English learners in the district were receiving proper education.

But the district has seen considerable turnover in leadership since then and has not complied with that agreement. Last November, when the State Board of Education ordered Adams 14 to hire an external manager to remedy academic failings, the state asked that the manager be “qualified and willing to fulfill the duties imposed by the U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil Rights.”

The district was in the middle of rolling out its biliteracy program in elementary grades with help and training from bilingual researchers at CU Boulder. But in 2017, then-superintendent Abrego halted the rollout saying he wasn’t confident in the program, and that getting enough qualified bilingual educators was a challenge.

The program had been popular with many teachers and parents who criticized the district’s step back.

MGT’s draft plan proposes transforming the biliteracy program in four elementary schools into bilingual programs. The draft did not explain differences between the programs or give a rationale for the switch.

Generally, educators have explained that biliteracy programs focus on teaching students to read in their native language so that they can transfer those same skills to reading in English when they gained fluency. In Adams 14 bilingual teachers led classes in Spanish, slowly adding more instruction in English as students progressed through the grade levels.

MGT’s draft plan describes the bilingual program similarly, beginning with more Spanish in the early years, then progressively switching to more English instruction in higher grade levels.

In the other elementary schools without a bilingual program, the draft plan proposes training all teachers to use strategies to help make the content accessible to students who don’t yet speak English. In addition, English learners would get a separate class during the day to develop their English language skills.

The draft plan mentions professional development for all teachers, but does not acknowledge previous challenges the district has faced in training teachers while having high turnover.

Union leaders and teachers who previously had helped shape the district’s plans for English learners said they have not seen the latest plan and said they have been left out of the conversations around it.

Benmellah said she was also disappointed that a part that deals with community engagement focuses on informing parents about the plan, but doesn’t mention incorporating families or staff into the work, or changing policy to send report cards home in Spanish.

Read the draft plan here: