Adams 14 defends bilingual model as the district’s new plan for English learners

Adams 14 leaders are trying to reassure families, staff, and community members who raised concerns about a new plan for educating English learners in the district.

English language learners make up more than half of the district’s 7,000 students — the highest rate in the state. How Adams 14 teaches these students is one of the most critical issues facing the district. Earlier this year, the State Board of Education ordered an external manager to take over most district operations after years of low performance, and finding the right approach will be key to improving student test scores and the state’s rating of the district.

District leaders and the external manager will need to win community trust as they roll out yet another new program. Many families and teachers had previously embraced a biliteracy program that the former superintendent abruptly paused.

The new plan will replace the former biliteracy model with bilingual programs at four of the district’s seven elementary schools. The new plan is awaiting final approval but has received positive feedback from the federal government, according to district officials.

Adams 14 school board members received only a summary version of the plan, but it was enough to spark several questions, including from board member and parent Laura Martinez, who has children in the biliteracy program. Her second-grader is already fluent in English, and is outperforming other students in English literacy while still reading at grade level in Spanish, she said.

“How are we going to be able to attract more students If we’re offering something that as a parent is not really eye-catching?” Martinez said. “Something I don’t feel might be the best approach.”

Bilingual education differs from biliteracy because of how biliteracy mixes the two languages. Biliteracy combines literacy instruction in both English and Spanish, so that students can gain English fluency but also transfer reading skills between the languages. Being biliterate means being able to fluently read and write at a high level in both languages. Being bilingual often describes understanding or speaking two languages, and bilingual education can include various approaches.

Tonia Lopez, the district’s manager of the department of language, culture, and equity, assured the board that the new bilingual model will be an improvement and offer more Spanish instruction than previous approaches.

“We’re building on to it,” Lopez said.

In 2014 Adams 14 signed an agreement with the federal Department of Education to improve the education of English language learners after the department determined it was violating the civil rights of those students. Pushback the district now is getting from families speaks to that history of broken trust with the community.

Although there are parts of the plan that may appeal to families and teachers, there’s also a discomfort in the fact that the district is yet again rolling out something new, with no guarantee that this time they will see it through.

For instance, this year’s third graders who have gone through the biliteracy program will not be able to continue on that track — nor can they join bilingual programming next year, meaning they will have no way to build on the foundation they’ve received. The district will end biliteracy instruction after this school year and roll out new bilingual classes two grade levels at a time, starting with kindergarten and first grade this year.

The plan does include some programming in middle and high schools. Board member Harvest Thomas urged a better continuum leading to a clear path to a seal of biliteracy, a special designation on the high school diploma that recognizes fluency in two languages.

District officials say they want to make sure this plan doesn’t sit on a shelf to be discarded by the next district leader.

“It’s at the forefront of everyone’s mind,” said the district’s attorney, Jon Fero. “There are a lot of steps being taken, but it starts and ends with the board of education.”

But the Adams 14 board will not vote on this plan and was given only a summary document that omitted many details at a recent board meeting. And by December, up to four new members may replace the current board.

Don Rangel, the acting superintendent and project manager for MGT Consulting, the district’s external manager, also said it’s on his mind.

The district has to be committed, he said. “We understand Adams 14 is no longer interested in having plans on paper.”

To explain the need for a new plan, Fero called the district’s last plan for biliteracy a draft that “wasn’t even complete.” The district’s former director of English language development said that while the federal government never followed up to finalize it, the district didn’t view the plan as just a draft, and was implementing it in earnest.

Under the new plan, Adams 14 is piloting the new bilingual model in kindergarten and first grade at four schools this fall.

If it’s successful, the program will expand gradually through fifth grade at those four schools. It will be open to English learners from around the district, with transportation provided.

For English learners who choose to stay at the other three elementary schools, students will spend their day in English classrooms where teachers will be trained to help them access the content in English. Students will also get 45 minutes in English language development in both models, as required by law.

MGT hired Darlene LeDoux, a longtime bilingual administrator from Denver, to observe, coach, and monitor the program.

The district also will look into creating a dual language magnet school. Dual language programs usually split Spanish and English instruction during the day, but are offered to both native-English speakers and non-English speakers, so all students are learning a language at the same time.

For years, English-speaking families in the district have asked for bilingual programming, saying that it may help their children better integrate with the community’s large Hispanic population and learn a skill that might help them in the future.

Lopez, the district’s language, culture, and equity manager, counts herself in that group.

“I lost that part of my culture,” Lopez said. “It’s something I hoped the biliteracy program would turn into when my kids got into kindergarten, so it’s something I value.”

In response to feedback, district leaders said they edited the plan to add more details about the bilingual model, calling it “an enhancement of the biliteracy approach” that “builds on the foundational strategies of the Spanish literacy block.”

Kathy Escamilla, a researcher at the University of Colorado Boulder’s BUENO Center who had been working on the district’s biliteracy program, disagrees with how Adams 14 is now describing the biliteracy program as just a two-hour literacy class in Spanish.

“It was two hours in Spanish and two hours in English, and the two languages were connected,” Escamilla said.

She added that giving students more instruction in their native Spanish language doesn’t by itself necessarily translate into good results. Still, she said a bilingual model can work.

“If they do something with love and with consistency and if they invest in their teachers so that they retain teachers, there are a lot of programs that will probably work for them,” Escamilla said.

Adams 14 school board members also pressed the district about how teachers are trained, and what curriculum they will use.

So far, the district will only be providing bilingual teachers with Spanish curriculum for language arts and math classes, even though teachers will have to teach other courses in Spanish.

Lopez said that in elementary school, science and social studies content is integrated with language arts instruction. But she said they will be listening in case teachers say they need more resources in Spanish.

Teachers participating in the bilingual pilot this year were allowed to see parts of the plan, but not the whole thing.

“I do like the model but give us the training we need in order for us to be successful,” said Virginia Valverde, a bilingual kindergarten teacher. She said she has received only about three days of training.

Although district leaders say they engaged with parents, teachers, and the community through an advisory committee in 2018, those in that group say that the communication wasn’t clear, the group was suggesting a dual-language model, and the district never followed up.

“The problem with this district is they propose something and they don’t really let anybody know until it’s actually pushed through,” Valverde said.

Attorney Fero said the plan is largely written to comply with the law and there are parts that can’t be changed, regardless of feedback.

“It doesn’t make sense to give every teacher the current draft of the plan,” Fero said. “So much of it is non-negotiable.”

Lopez said that she knows the district could have communicated better, and said there are plans to do better in the future.

Board member Dominick Moreno urged the district not focus only on legal compliance.

“To me that’s the bare minimum,” Moreno said. “We are really uniquely positioned. We should take the opportunity to really be leaders in this area.”