First Person

Opinion: Site ignores English language learners

This commentary was submitted by Andrea Mérida, a Denver school board member representing southwest Denver.

The ballyhoo over a new school grading website piqued my interest, so I surfed over to to check it out.  After all, the power partners that have coalesced around the website’s development and launch know how to make a splash.  And why wouldn’t I be interested in the fact that they’ve taken the pains to offer information in Spanish?

After just a few searches for some of the schools in my southwest Denver subdistrict, however, I see that this website is still using more of the same accountability blinders that punish schools and kids for their English-proficiency differences by trying to lump them all into the same bucket as native and fluent English speakers.

About English learners and proficiency

In accordance with state law, the Colorado Department of Education administers an English-language proficiency exam, the Colorado English Language Aquisition Proficiency Assessment (CELApro), to EVERY K-12 student yearly.  As CDE states, “The primary purpose of the assessment program is to determine the level at which Colorado non-English proficient (NEP) and limited-English proficient (LEP) students meet the Colorado English Language Development Standards in four domains (Listening, Speaking, Reading and Writing).”

The English proficiency of each student is graded on a 1 to 5 scale: beginner (1), early intermediate (2), intermediate (3), proficient (4) and advanced (5).  According to DPS Chief Academic Officer, Susana Córdova, an English learner is considered linguistically ready to take the CSAP/TCAP when they have achieved either a level 4 or 5.

However, even if a student is not linguistically ready to take the CSAP in English, their scores will be averaged into the district’s and state’s school performance framework, and consequently, into the website data.  You can imagine how that pans out.

Worse, none of these “accountability tools” truly give full weight to the Spanish-language version of the CSAPs administered for 3rd and 4th grade, skewing the performance of elementary schools with high numbers of English learners in incredibly unfair ways.

Some pertinent examples

CDE provides information about the language proficiency for every designated English learner in the state, and I’ve used it to analyze the level of English proficiency for middle and high schools, which only administer the CSAP in English.  In nearly every case, our schools that are classified as “yellow” (accredited on watch) all have high numbers of English learners that are below the “safe linguistic threshold” of a CELApro level 4 or 5.  Here are a few examples:

For the purposes of this chart, I call those students at CELApro level 4 and 5 as “ready for CSAP.”  As you can see from this small sampling, schools with high proportions of English learners are maligned by the website as substandard.

Clearly, the mission of schools with high proportions of English learners takes on a different perspective than schools with lower concentrations.  While we all want students to grow and succeed, student growth must be reviewed under a different lens when student populations come from homes in which English is not the primary (or sole) language., therefore, unfairly glosses over this distinction and makes no attempt to inform parents of these nuances.  When dealing with populations that have difficulty in English and who are regularly exposed to various types of hucksterism in their daily lives, it becomes all the more important for a website that purports to serve as a resource for parents to be fully transparent.

To do otherwise is irresponsible.

This type of data has been the basis for extremely high-stakes decisions made about kids, teachers and their schools.  As I retrospectively consider last year’s board decision to phase out Montbello High School, for example, imagine how differently the school’s performance would have seemed had we considered the 25 percent of students who are not ready to take the CSAP in English.  Not being a statistician, I will defer to those who can calculate the probability of a 25 percent bump in overall achievement if those scores are even just disaggregated from the whole.  I wonder if the board’s decision would have been different if we knew then what I know now.

Students at Kepner Middle School, one of the schools represented by Denver school board member Andrea Merida. Photo from Kepner.

As the Northwest Community Committee pointed out to the board this week, among all the other goals Spanish-speaking parents find important in schools, they also consider learning English to be primary (see the Venn diagram on page 9).  These parents know their children have particular needs, and they expect the policymakers to realize it, too.

I have regular conversations with my Spanish-speaking constituents in southwest Denver, who express worry over the performance of their schools.  When I point out to Kepner Middle School parents, for example, that their school has been able to increase the rate of students at CELApro levels 4 and 5 by nearly 30 percentage points over the last four years, their relief is palpable.

And the former Rishel Middle School?  In 4 short years, they increased the numbers of students at CELApro levels 4 or 5 by a whopping 40 percent.  But there is no Rishel now; it’s been closed.

If the development team at really wants to be a resource for Spanish-speaking parents, they would do well to join me in peeling back the layers of the accountability onion in good faith and transparency so that ALL parents can make the right choices for their children.

This offer has no expiration date.  Will take me up on it?

First Person

I’ve been mistaken for the other black male leader at my charter network. Let’s talk about it.

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

I was recently invited to a reunion for folks who had worked at the New York City Department of Education under Mayor Michael Bloomberg. It was a privilege for me to have been part of that work, and it was a privilege for me to be in that room reflecting on our legacy.

The counterweight is that only four people in the room were black males. Two were waiters, and I was one of the remaining two. There were definitely more than two black men who were part of the work that took place in New York City during that era, but it was still striking how few were present.

The event pushed me to reflect again on the jarring impact of the power dynamics that determine who gets to make decisions in so-called education reform. The privileged end up being relatively few, and even fewer look like the kids we serve.

I’m now the chief operating officer at YES Prep, a charter school network in Houston. When I arrived at YES four years ago, I had been warned that it was a good old boys club. Specifically, that it was a good old white boys club. It was something I assessed in taking the role: Would my voice be heard? Would I truly have a seat at the table? Would I have any influence?

As a man born into this world with a black father and white mother, I struggled at an early age with questions about identity and have been asking those questions ever since.

As I became an adult, I came to understand that being from the suburbs, going to good schools, and being a lighter-skinned black person affords me greater access to many settings in America. At the same time, I experience my life as a black man.

Jeremy Beard, head of schools at YES, started the same day I did. It was the first time YES had black men at the leadership table of the organization. The running joke was that people kept mistaking Jeremy and me for each other. We all laughed about it, but it revealed some deeper issues that had pervaded YES for some time.

“Remember when you led that tour in the Rio Grande Valley to see schools?” a board member asked me about three months into my tenure.“That wasn’t me,” I replied. I knew he meant Jeremy, who had worked at IDEA in the Valley. At that time, I had never been to the Valley and didn’t even know where it was on the map.

“Yes, it was,” he insisted.

“I’ve never been to the Valley. It wasn’t me. I think you mean Jeremy.”

“No, it was you, don’t you remember?” he continued, pleading with me to recall something that never happened.

“It wasn’t me.”

He stopped, thought about it, confused, and uttered, “Huh.”

It is difficult for me to assign intent here, and this dynamic is not consistent with all board members. That particular person may have truly been confused about my identity. And sure, two black men may have a similar skin tone, and we may both work at YES. But my life experience suggests something else was at play. It reminds me that while I have the privilege of sitting at the table with our board, they, as board members, have the privilege of not having to know who I am, or that Jeremy and I are different black dudes.

It would be easy to just chalk this all up to racial politics in America and accept it as status quo, but I believe we can change the conversation on privilege and race by having more conversations on privilege and race. We can change the dynamics of the game by continuing to build awareness of diversity, equity, and inclusion. We can also advocate to change who has seats at the table and whose voices will be heard.

I remain hopeful thanks to the changes I have witnessed during my time at YES. The board has been intentional in their efforts to address their own privilege, and is actively working to become more diverse and inclusive.

Personally, I have worked to ensure there are more people of color with seats at the table by mentoring future leaders of color at YES Prep and other black men in this work. Jeremy and I also created Brothers on Books, a book club for black men at YES to find mentorship and fellowship. Through this book club, we can create a safe space to have candid discussions based on literature we read and explore what it means to be black men at YES.

When I think about privilege, I am torn between the privilege that has been afforded to me and the jarring power dynamics that determine who gets to have conversations and make decisions in so-called education reform. White people are afforded more voices and seats at the table, making decisions that primarily impact children of color.

It is not lost on me that it is my own privilege that affords me access to a seat at the table. My hope is that by using my role, my voice and my privilege, I can open up dialogue, hearts, minds, opinions, and perceptions. I hope that readers are similarly encouraged to assess their own privileges and determine how they can create positive change.

Recy Benjamin Dunn is YES Prep’s chief operating officer, overseeing operations, district partnerships, and growth strategy for the charter school network. A version of this piece was first published on YES Prep’s blog.

First Person

I’m a Bronx teacher, and I see up close what we all lose when undocumented students live with uncertainty

The author at her school.

It was our high school’s first graduation ceremony. Students were laughing as they lined up in front of the auditorium, their families cheering them on as they entered. We were there to celebrate their accomplishments and their futures.

Next to each student’s name on the back of those 2013 graduation programs was the college the student planned to attend in the fall. Two names, however, had noticeable blanks next to them.

But I was especially proud of these two students, whom I’ll call Sofia and Isabella. These young women started high school as English learners and were diagnosed with learning disabilities. Despite these obstacles, I have never seen two students work so hard.

By the time they graduated, they had two of the highest grade point averages in their class. It would have made sense for them to be college-bound. But neither would go to college. Because of their undocumented status, they did not qualify for financial aid, and, without aid, they could not afford it.

During this year’s State of the Union, I listened to President Trump’s nativist rhetoric and I thought of my students and the thousands of others in New York City who are undocumented. President Trump falsely portrayed them as gang members and killers. The truth is, they came to this country before they even understood politics and borders. They grew up in the U.S. They worked hard in school. In this case, they graduated with honors. They want to be doctors and teachers. Why won’t we let them?

Instead, as Trump works to repeal President Obama’s broader efforts to enfranchise these young people, their futures are plagued by uncertainty and fear. A Supreme Court move just last week means that young people enrolled in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program remain protected but in limbo.

While Trump and the Congress continue to struggle to find compromise on immigration, we have a unique opportunity here in New York State to help Dreamers. Recently, the Governor Cuomo proposed and the state Assembly passed New York’s DREAM Act, which would allow Sofia, Isabella, and their undocumented peers to access financial aid and pursue higher education on equal footing with their documented peers. Republicans in the New York State Senate, however, have refused to take up this bill, arguing that New York state has to prioritize the needs of American-born middle-class families.

This argument baffles me. In high school, Sofia worked hard to excel in math and science in order to become a radiologist. Isabella was so passionate about becoming a special education teacher that she spent her free periods volunteering with students with severe disabilities at the school co-located in our building.

These young people are Americans. True, they may not have been born here, but they have grown up here and seek to build their futures here. They are integral members of our communities.

By not passing the DREAM Act, it feels like lawmakers have decided that some of the young people that graduate from my school do not deserve the opportunity to achieve their dreams. I applaud the governor’s leadership, in partnership with the New York Assembly, to support Dreamers like Sofia and Isabella and I urge Senate Republicans to reconsider their opposition to the bill.

Today, Sofia and Isabella have been forced to find low-wage jobs, and our community and our state are the poorer for it.

Ilona Nanay is a 10th grade global history teacher and wellness coordinator at Mott Hall V in the Bronx. She is also a member of Educators for Excellence – New York.