a new plan

This Colorado school district was supposed to be a model for advancing biliteracy. Now it’s scaling back

First grade teacher Nancy Carbajal at Dupont Elementary School in Adams 14 listens as students practice reading in Spanish. (Photo by Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat)

The Adams 14 school district is scaling back plans to create a track for students to follow to become biliterate, citing a need for students to learn English faster and a lack of qualified teachers.

Officials in the 7,500-student district in Denver’s north suburbs say they value biliteracy and will continue efforts to nurture it in early grades. But research casts doubt on the district’s new approach, and advocates worry that the changes will make teacher recruitment even more difficult.

Two years ago, under the previous superintendent, the Commerce City-based district had launched an ambitious kindergarten through 12th grade plan to prepare students to be literate in both Spanish and English.

The district struck a relationship with researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder to guide teachers on how to teach biliteracy in elementary schools. Now, Adams 14 is ending that relationship before the program has reached fourth and fifth grade classrooms district-wide, as originally envisioned. And the fate of biliteracy work in middle and high schools is uncertain.

New Adams 14 leaders say it’s not the district’s primary goal or responsibility to develop a student’s native language. The main goal, and where they see students being deficient, is in English fluency — which is why they want to get students immersed in English faster.

But research suggests that rushing to get students into English-only classrooms may hinder the long-term academic growth of students learning English as a second language. The implications are big in the Commerce City district, where about half of the students are learning English as a second language.

“The research is fairly conclusive,” said Kara Viesca, chair of bilingual education research for the American Educational Research Association. “We definitely know from research that students develop more dominant literacy skills in their native language making their literacy stronger — and those skills are transferable. If you know how to decode language in Spanish, you know how to decode language in English.”

But, she added, “One of the problems is it requires more patience.”

Adams 14, one of the state’s lowest performing districts, is on a short timeframe to show students are making academic improvements under a state-mandated plan.

The district’s turnaround work, approved by the state, included plans for the district to develop biliteracy options for students as well as plans to require all new teachers to get the education necessary to earn state endorsements in cultural and linguistically diverse education.

“These efforts are intended to build capacity to continue and grow the biliteracy program and to assure that the needs of our culturally and linguistically diverse student population are being met by recruiting the most highly-qualified and talented individuals,” the turnaround plan states.

Although some work to train and recruit more skilled teachers is continuing, the number of teachers in Adams 14 that hold such a qualification remains low, in part because of a high turnover.

Expanding programs requires qualified teachers, but those teachers won’t come to the district if leaders aren’t committing to the biliteracy models and the original plan to expand them, advocates say.

Under the original plan, the biliteracy framework would roll out in the elementary schools under the guidance of the CU researchers.

The plan called for three options at the middle and high school level, including a biliteracy track for students who had been in the biliteracy classrooms in elementary school, and two other options for students who want Spanish instruction but are new to it. Students taking biliteracy programs from elementary through high school would be able to earn a Seal of Biliteracy proving they are fluent in English and another language.

Adams 14 was one of three districts in Colorado to lead the way in offering the seal for high school graduates. But the district’s work creating the path from kindergarten through 12th grade to prepare students to be biliterate was the part being watched as a potential model for other districts.

“We had pointed to Adams 14 as one of the state leaders in recognizing biliteracy and recognizing that it doesn’t just happen with people talking to their kids in Spanish,” said Jorge Garcia, executive director of the Colorado Association for Bilingual Education. “It really takes work. We were extremely hopeful that the community would get a good, solid, research-based program and instruction that would really have long-term benefits.”

While officials say they will keep the biliteracy classrooms that already exist through third grade, they said they might make a school-by-school decision on whether to continue expanding the model to fourth and fifth graders if there is interest and if there are qualified teachers.

And Superintendent Javier Abrego said the district is “ready to fly on our own,” without the help of the university researchers that are training teachers to run the bilingual classes.

At the middle and high school level, officials are also hesitating to say those biliteracy options will expand as originally envisioned, saying they have to look more closely at data to gauge its effectiveness.

District officials added that some of the responsibility to help students be bilingual should be on parents.

“Spanish is my first language, but I didn’t have the opportunity of being in a Spanish classroom,” said Aracelia Burgos, chief academic and innovation officer. “I maintained my Spanish because my parents made sure that I did. I want to empower our parents to do the same.”

It’s a sensitive issue for some people in the community, as they say it brings back memories of the district’s history mistreating Hispanic students and families and banning Spanish in schools. In 2014, the federal government published findings from an investigation, saying the district was violating civil rights policies through its English-only policies, creating a hostile environment for Spanish-speaking students, families and teachers.

Colorado Association of Bilingual Educators officials say they started hearing similar concerns resurface at the start of this school year — including from teachers feeling pressure to not spend as much time instructing students in Spanish, and from families concerned that their children were no longer getting homework in a language they could help them with.

Maria Trujillo, a mom of a 6-year-old in Dupont Elementary’s biliteracy classrooms, said she was not aware the district was considering changes to the biliteracy program, which she thinks is working well for her son. She said she was looking forward to him staying in the program until at least fifth grade.

“He’s learning both languages very well,” Trujillo said. “In fact, he already understands more English than I do. I think it only benefits students to be able to become bilingual.”

As concerns about the fate of the biliteracy efforts mounted, parents, educators and advocates started packing school board meetings to voice support for the programs.

Days later, as the superintendent published a statement reiterating a commitment to bilingual education and biliteracy — in kindergarten through third grade — the district suspended Edilberto Cano, its director of English language development. He oversaw the district’s biliteracy work, the partnership with the university and the training of teachers.

District officials won’t comment on why Cano was put on administrative leave.

Rep. Dominick Moreno, a Democrat representing Commerce City, and graduate of the district, joined supporters of biliteracy in speaking to the board at a meeting last week.

“Gone are the days when speaking more than one language was a liability. Now it’s an asset,” Moreno said. “I certainly hope that you’ll carefully consider some of the changes and just make sure that all of our kids, that their multilingual abilities are understood and respected.”

Researchers and advocates say that despite conclusive and extensive research on the benefits of bilingual instruction, the programs continue to face challenges across the country by critics who often hold values that contradict the research.

“If the value is to have a bilingual kid perform as if they are English monolingual, the bilingual education research is not going to support that,” said Viesca, of the American Educational Research Association.

Another researcher, Kate Menken, who is professor of linguistics at Queens College in New York, said she gets so many calls every year from people asking if there is research on bilingual programs that she created a page on her website just to direct callers to multiple studies. One big question she doesn’t answer, she said, is around the time needed to become biliterate.

“There’s a lot of focus on speed, and trying to speed up the process, but these programs are not really about that,” Menken said. “It’s about giving students time to learn and learn well.”

District officials say they are not so confident in research, pointing to their own data from the first group of students that were in the biliteracy classrooms. Those students (this year they are third graders) are showing some growth, but they are behind students in the district’s traditional English classrooms, the district says.

Pat Almeida, the principal of Dupont Elementary, and CU Boulder researchers said those students are likely showing different outcomes because they started the biliteracy learning at first grade, not kindergarten, and because they were the first to go through the program as teachers were still learning how to run those classrooms.

According to a report completed by the CU Boulder researchers working with the district to roll out the biliteracy program, students who have come after that first group of students, including those now in kindergarten, first grade and second grade, are testing better than students who are in English classrooms.

In biliteracy classrooms, teachers instruct literacy in Spanish for at least one hour each day. There is also a period of literacy instruction in English, and teachers may use a mix of languages for the rest of the day to teach other subjects.

At Dupont Elementary, a classroom of kindergarteners last week spent their hour of Spanish literacy time sharing and discussing how to define technology and electricity.

Then, as all kids sat on the rug at the front of their class, teacher Mary Fernandez took out a large copy of a Spanish kids book about technology, and before reading, asked the students to guess if the book was fiction or nonfiction and to explain why.

The Dupont biliteracy teachers are highly qualified teachers with state endorsements, said Abrego, the superintendent. Their qualifications are necessary to making the biliteracy program work, he said.

The district is pressing forward with other efforts aimed at English language learners. Under an agreement with the BUENO Center for Multicultural Education at CU Boulder, Adams 14 pays a third of the course fees for district teachers to earn that state endorsement that qualifies them to teach students who don’t speak English. It’s called the Culturally and Linguistically Diverse endorsement.

It takes about two years of college courses to complete the endorsement. As part of the partnership, classes are offered in district schools in the evening. This year there are nearly 30 teachers taking the college classes, although a handful of the teachers are joining from other school districts.

For teachers who don’t have the endorsement, the district provides training in the district’s approaches to incorporating English language development in traditional classrooms. So far, 200 of the district’s 458 teachers have been trained in those approaches. But because the district is low on the number of coaches, once teachers take the district classes, most don’t have help throughout the year to apply the strategies.

Although getting help paying the courses is an incentive for teachers, once they complete their endorsement, Adams 14 doesn’t give them a bonus or a raise. Burgos, the chief academic officer, wants to find a way to offer sign-on bonuses next year.

Number of teachers with state and/or internal endorsement by district

  • Adams 12, 235 out of a total of 2,288 certified staff
  • Adams 14, 56 out of a total of 458 teachers
  • Aurora, 1,199, out of a total of 2,313 licensed staff
  • Denver, 3,737 out of a total of just over 5,000 teachers
  • Colorado, 5,493 out of a total of 53,567 teachers

Because teachers with those qualifications are in short supply, they’re also in high demand. This year, 56 of the district’s 458 teachers have the state endorsement. That’s comparable to numbers in nearby districts and statewide, with 5,493 of the state’s 53,567 teachers having an endorsement.

Adams 14 schools have had high turnover, although it decreased from 2014 to 2016-17. Last year, the district also had more than 48 percent turnover in their instructional staff, which includes teacher coaches, higher than any other metro area district.

Prior to being placed on leave, Adams 14’s English language director, Cano, was also working to create a faster condensed program for an internal endorsement that the district could require to make sure all district teachers are qualified to teach English learners.

Aurora Public Schools last year created a similar internal endorsement based on 96 hours of online and face-to-face professional learning. In its second year, Aurora now has 1,199 of the district’s 2,313 licensed staff — more than half — with either the state or district endorsement.

Of the teachers running the biliteracy classrooms in Adams 14, only half of them had the state endorsement last year. CU Boulder researchers working with the district say while it would be good to have more, not expanding the biliteracy work will only make teachers more scarce.

“There is a shortage of bilingual teachers,” said Kathy Escamilla, director of the BUENO Center at CU Boulder. “But you are not going to expand a program if you’ve created hostility. You have to have some initiative to recruit and retain these teachers.”



Follow the ratings

Illinois education officials laud their school ratings — but critics say they don’t go far enough

Illinois rolled out its new school accountability system in the Illinois Report Card late last month.

State education officials publicly lauded their new school rating system Friday, even as a new, nationwide analysis of school improvement plans criticized Illinois’ approach as too hands-off.  

While the state developed a clear rating system as the federal government requires, Illinois falls short in follow-through, according to the report from the Collaborative for Student Success, a non-profit advocacy group, and HCM Strategies, a policy analysis group.  

“The state is taking too limited a role in leading or supporting school improvement efforts,” said the report, which examined how 17 states are implementing school improvement plans under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, which was passed in 2015 and replaced the No Child Left Behind Act.

Both those federal laws task states with identifying and helping improve underperforming schools and with creating criteria to judge which schools are doing well. Illinois rolled out its new school accountability system in the Illinois Report Card late last month.

State officials disagree with the criticism.

“Illinois is being held up as a model for other states to follow,” said Ralph Grimm, chief education officer of Illinois, speaking at the monthly state board of education meeting on Friday. “The entire (state) team has to be commended for providing useful information.”

Illinois’ rating system places every public school in the state into one of four categories based in part on scores on the annual PARCC standardized tests (click here to see how Chicago schools ranked).

Only about a third of Illinois students scored proficient or higher on PARCC tests administered last spring. In reading, 37 percent of students in grades 3 through 8 met that benchmark, while in math 31 percent did. Despite that, the state awarded 80 percent of its schools a “commendable” or “exemplary” rating. 

The state labeled 20 percent of schools “underperforming” or “low performing,” the only designations that could trigger state action. Intervention measures include improvement plans, visits from specialists, and additional funding.

The state released its ratings just days after Chicago released its own batch of school ratings, which take into account a different set of metrics and a different standardized test.

Grimm said the next step will be asking the state’s lowest-performing schools to draft improvement plans and then connecting them with experts to implement their changes.

The state ratings pay particular attention to how schools educate certain groups of students — such as children of color and English language learners. Improvement plans will focus on ways to raise their achievement levels.

Under the latest state rankings, nearly half of Chicago schools failed to meet the state’s threshold for performance, with a disproportionate number of high schools on the low-performance list. Nearly all of under- and low-performing Chicago high schools are on the South Side and sit in or border on the city’s poorest census tracts.

The state could grant underperforming schools $15,000, and  the lowest performers can apply for $100,000 under its IL-Empower program — which helped schools improve by funneling federal funds to them. Advocates have welcomed the change to a carrot to help schools pull themselves up, after years of sticks that overhauled and cut funding for low-performing schools.

Nationally, the Collaborative for Student Success report applauded Colorado for its streamlined application system, and Nevada for asking districts to directly address equity.

The collaborative criticized Illinois for failing to involve parents and community members in its plan. The group also said the state needs to give districts more guidance on putting together school improvement plans. 

carry on

These 16 Denver charter schools won renewal from the school board

PHOTO: AAron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post
Sebastian Cruz waves to Rev. Leon Kelly as he works with children in a classroom during his after-school program at Wyatt Academy in September 2018.

The Denver school board on Thursday night unanimously renewed agreements with 16 of the district’s charter schools. The lengths of those renewals, however, varied from one year to five years — and signaled the board’s confidence in the schools to deliver a quality education.

The board also accepted Roots Elementary’s decision to close and surrender its charter at the end of this school year. The Park Hill school is facing low enrollment and high costs.

Denver Public Schools is a charter-friendly school district that has for years shared tax revenue and school buildings with its 60 publicly funded, independently operated charter schools. The schools are controversial, though, with opponents viewing them as privatizing public education.

Every charter school in Denver has an agreement with the district that spells out how long it’s allowed to operate. To continue running after that time period, the charter school must seek renewal. The arrangement is part of the deal for charters: They get the flexibility to operate independently, but they must periodically prove to the district that they’re doing a good job.

The school board relies on one set of recommendations from Denver Public Schools staff and a second set of recommendations from a districtwide parent committee in deciding how long a leash to give each charter school. The district staff and the parents on the committee consider factors such as test scores, school culture, financial viability, and the strength of a school’s leaders when making their recommendations.

They also consider a school’s rating on Denver Public Schools’ color-coded scale based largely on academic factors. The School Performance Framework, or SPF, labels schools either blue, green, yellow, orange, or red. Blue means a school has a distinguished academic record, while red means a school is not meeting the district’s expectations.

The staff recommended the school board renew the charters of all 16 schools that applied. Two other charter schools — DSST: Cole Middle School and Compass Academy — are also up for renewal this year. But because they earned the district’s lowest rating, they must go through a separate process in which they will present a detailed improvement plan. Their renewals will depend on the strength of their plans, which is why they weren’t included in this batch.

The board approved the 16 renewals Thursday without discussion. All of the new terms begin next school year. Here’s the rundown:

STRIVE Prep Federal, a middle school in southwest Denver
Year opened: 2006
School rating: Green
Renewal: Five years

DSST: Green Valley Ranch High School, a high school in far northeast Denver
Year opened: 2011
School rating: Green
Renewal: Five years

Rocky Mountain Prep Creekside, an elementary school in southeast Denver
Year opened: 2012
School rating: Green
Renewal: Five years

DSST: College View High School, a high school in southwest Denver
Year opened: 2015
School rating: Green
Renewal: Three years, with a possible two-year extension

KIPP Northeast Denver Leadership Academy, a high school in far northeast Denver
Year opened: 2015
School rating: Blue
Renewal: Three years, with a possible two-year extension

KIPP Northeast Elementary School, an elementary school in far northeast Denver
Year opened: 2015
School rating: Yellow
Renewal: Two years, with a possible three-year extension

Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest, an elementary school in southwest Denver
Year opened: 2015
School rating: Yellow
Renewal: Two years, with a possible three-year extension

Wyatt Academy, an elementary school in northeast Denver
Year opened: 2003
School rating: Yellow
Renewal: Two years, with a possible two-year extension

KIPP Northeast Denver Middle School, a middle school in far northeast Denver
Year opened: 2011
School rating: Yellow
Renewal: Two years, with a possible two-year extension

Downtown Denver Expeditionary School, an elementary school in central Denver
Year opened: 2013
School rating: Yellow
Renewal: Two years, with a possible two-year extension

Denver Justice High School, an alternative high school for at-risk students in central Denver
Year opened: 2009
School rating: Yellow
Renewal: Two years, with a possible one-year extension

REACH Charter School, an elementary school in central Denver
Year opened: 2015
School rating: Yellow
Renewal: Two years, with a possible one-year extension

Monarch Montessori, an elementary school in far northeast Denver
Year opened: 2012
School rating: Orange
Renewal: One year, with a possible two-year extension

STRIVE Prep SMART, a high school in southwest Denver
Year opened: 2012
School rating: Orange
Renewal: One year, with a possible two-year extension

Academy of Urban Learning, an alternative high school for at-risk students in northwest Denver
Year opened: 2005
School rating: Red
Renewal: One year, with a possible one-year extension

Rise Up Community School, an alternative high school for at-risk students in northeast Denver
Year opened: 2015
School rating: Red
Renewal: One year