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.”



to the races

Jia Lee, a special education teacher and union gadfly, wants to be New York’s next lieutenant governor

Earth School teacher Jia Lee is running for New York lt. governor. An advocate against high-stakes testing, she spoke about the issue in 2015 before the U.S. Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.

With 18 years in the classroom, special education teacher Jia Lee has seen a lot of change. Now, she wants to be the one who makes it.

Lee is running for lieutenant governor on the Green Party ticket, facing off against the incumbent Democrat Kathy Hochul and a Republican challenger, Julie Killian, in the November general election.

Even during an election cycle that has propelled underdog candidates closer to office, Lee knows her odds of victory are long. But that hasn’t stopped her before. In 2016, Lee challenged United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew in a bid for the union’s top post. She lost but managed to garner more than 20 percent of the vote as part of the MORE caucus — an opposition party that calls itself the Movement of Rank and File Educators and champions pocketbook issues such as pay, but also social justice causes.  

When she’s not teaching fourth and fifth grades at Earth School in the East Village, campaigning, or agitating within the union, Lee is active in the opt-out movement that protests high-stakes standardized tests — an issue that she once testified about before Congress.

Lee joins a wave of teachers across the country who have taken their classroom frustrations to the campaign trail in states far less blue than New York, such as Oklahoma and Arizona. Closer to home, the 2016 teacher of the year could be heading to Congress. Here’s what Lee thinks is driving their activism and what she’d like to change in education policy in New York.

Responses have been edited for length and clarity.

Why are you running for lieutenant governor?

I’m running — and with the Green party specifically — because I feel as though policies in education have been largely driven by corporate reformers, who have direct ties with the Democratic party. I see it as incredibly problematic when you have this private/public kind of partnership, especially in government, where money or for-profits are driving decisions in our state. And the Green party is completely untethered to any of that.

I’m realistic about the power of the Green party because of the way our electoral process works in New York state. I believe I’m part of building a more grassroots, bottom-up movement that’s not just talking about the issues that are problematic but highlighting the root causes of it — and that’s the system and the rules that were designed by people in power. So it makes it very difficult for regular people, working people to engage in the system.

How would education policy change if you’re elected?

Currently the way decisions are made, it’s a pyramid structure. It’s very top-down, and my idea is to kind of invert that pyramid and create structures so there’s greater voice coming up from the bottom. How else are you going to know what policies need to be put in place if we don’t know what the needs are really?

Let’s say there’s an education gap or an opportunity gap happening. The analysis — over why that problem is — is in large part determined by people in power. So their solutions have always been to create consequences and rewards like the teacher evaluation system and the accountability system around high-stakes testing. It’s this really test-and-punish system. But if you go to any school that’s struggling, you’ll find that a lot of the answers and problem-solving can come from the actual community.

That sounds hard to do at scale. What kinds of systemic or structural changes could be implemented to make that a reality?

One, we have mayoral control, and that wasn’t always the case in New York City. The largest five school districts in New York State, if you look at them, a lot of them have either centralized control where the elected school boards have been dissolved, democratic spaces were dissolved. It’s a pattern across the country, where centralized control takes hold, and then you have less voice coming up from people.

And then I do believe that our locally elected officials — senators, assembly members —  they’re also taking big contributions from education reform groups, charters. And that, in large part, incentivizes the decisions that happen at the local level. We have to push forward rules about campaign finance, and I think that’s one of the biggest things that has to change — the culture of our governing system.

What do you hope to accomplish with your candidacy, even if you don’t win?

I’m definitely very clear about the odds. But at the same time, I’m very hopeful about this process and this work. This candidacy is about really highlighting the process for a lot of people who maybe even never knew who our current lt. governor was, and now they know. That position has, in large part, been kind of invisible in our state, and maybe we’ve brought that to light. We’re electing people into positions of power in our state, and we’re starting to question them, developing ideas around what needs to change in order for a greater number of people to feel like they had a say, and not feeling like they have to compromise one way or another.

Another big push for me in this campaign is to highlight our issues. The root cause of poverty or all these societal ills is the income gap. It’s not about, ‘Oh, you must have worked harder.’ Or, ‘You must deserve your incredible wealth because of who you are.’ No. Everyone deserves to have basic quality of life.

We’re in a moment of great teacher activism across the country. What do teachers want? What is driving this?

Over the last decade, we’ve seen policies that strip our school budgets — so that places a greater burden on teachers. We actually spend a lot of our own personal money — people sometimes don’t realize how much — just to provide basic things like paper, pencils. And in some dire situations — I’ve actually been in this place — we’re actually buying clothes for students or toiletry items. I’ve had friends in New York City whose custodians have said that budgets have been slashed so much that they can only buy a certain number of garbage bags or paper towels for the bathroom. So teachers now in some schools put toilet paper on the supply lists and even purchase it themselves. That’s one phase of it.

And then another one is this incredible, ridiculous accountability system put in place while these budget cuts are happening —  asking teachers and students and administrators to jump really, really high — without any resources.

Teachers tend to be nurturers and people who sacrifice a lot. I’ve seen tons of stories in the media about the kinds of things teachers do above and beyond. It just shouldn’t be that way. The burden being placed on teachers is untenable.

What do you see as the value of unions? What do you see as reasonable criticisms of them?

Without unions, working people on the whole, we’ll have no space to collectively organize around working conditions. For us as educators, that has a direct impact on our students’ learning conditions. It’s a ripple effect. It affects our communities. Without our unions, we’re not able to protect and support our communities — let alone our own livelihoods.

I believe that our union needs greater internal democracy, that negotiations with the government — with the city or at the larger level — needs to have greater transparency and input from its constituents. Process matters within our union.

So far UFT membership has remained strong in the wake of the Janus Supreme Court decision, which banned mandatory union dues. How do you think the decision will play out here moving forward?

Being actively engaged in your union is like a gym membership. It’s only as powerful as how engaged members are in the process. So while we might have the roster — a lot of people [who] stayed on as union members — how much do they really feel engaged in decision-making at the policy level?

Collecting dues makes it so that our union leadership can have the finances to continue to operate in the way that they have and not to incentivize them to really listen to members. I’m concerned that unless there is greater engagement, nothing is really going to change, and it’s like death by a thousand cuts in our state. It’s not as visible as in red states, where they’ve had these huge cuts that impacted everyone, and everyone came around to the same conclusion that they had to fight for just their basic rights. Whereas here, it’s very nuanced. So it’s a slow death, I would say, at the rate that we’re going.

How has teaching prepared you for the campaign trail? Have you taken any campaign lessons into the classroom?

I have to say, being part of a school community that’s very collaborative and also being able to foster discussion practices with my students and teaching them how to have debates, be able to present their ideas —  in those very concrete ways, it’s prepared me for this. I feel like a lot of teachers could do this. It’s just the work of teaching takes up a lot of our time and energy and passion.

New York City’s elite specialized high schools enroll very few black and Hispanic students. Critics trace the segregation back to the Specialized High School Admissions Test, which currently serves as the sole admissions criteria. What do you think of  Mayor Bill de Blasio’s plan to scrap the exam?

I have very strong feelings that the SHSAT is a gatekeeper. The fact that we as a city can say there are elite schools for a few, and that everyone else is stuck with mediocre or less-than schools, is to me completely wrong. We should, as a city, be able to say that all of our schools provide the kind of education that we want our kids to have. If there is such a high demand for a specialized high school that has specific kinds of programming, then we need to find ways to provide more of them — even in each borough or each community if necessary. We’re creating a resource that seems to be very scarce, and in education, why are we doing that?

Reinventing school

What’s next for the Laurene Powell Jobs-funded effort to rethink American high schools

Tom Hanks and James Corden during XQ's TV special, "Super School Live."

A star-studded television special broadcast on major networks last year had a simple message: high schools haven’t changed in 100 years, but they need to — and fast.

It was backed by the nonprofit XQ Institute, which has awarded $130 million to 19 schools trying new approaches, like using virtual reality or creating a school within a museum. As those schools get off the ground, XQ has begun to deploy another strategy: trying to influence local policy.

Last week, XQ published a report encouraging state leaders to push for innovation on their own, including a set of recommendations for things like graduation requirements, teacher training, and innovation funds. Another guide, this one focused on convincing school board members to prioritize high school reform, is on the way.

It’s a notable new tack for the organization, which is affiliated with Laurene Powell Jobs’ Emerson Collective. (Chalkbeat is funded by the Emerson Collective through the Silicon Valley Community Fund.) And it’s one with a reasonable shot at influencing policy, thanks both to XQ’s generous funding and to the fact that innovation appeals to education advocates of many stripes.

But XQ is also sure to face familiar challenges in realizing its goal of dramatically reshaping schools: convincing policymakers that their strategy is the right one and addressing foundational issues like school funding that can stand in the way.

“Typically what systems do is they exempt innovative schools from the traditional policies and practices of the district, but all that guarantees is that they’ll remain a minority among a majority of traditional schools,” said Warren Simmons, who was involved in the Annenberg Challenge, a philanthropic effort to improve schools in the 1990s.

19 schools, broader ambitions

A few of XQ’s schools opened their doors for the first time this year, including Crosstown High in Memphis, which promises to have students focus their learning on projects. Schools like that, XQ argues, will help students get ready for a changing world.

“To prepare for the future of work, we need to set a clear agenda to prepare the future workforce — and that agenda ties directly to our schools,” Russlynn Ali, the XQ CEO and a former Obama administration official, wrote in the report’s introduction.

To address this, XQ recommends several policies. One is to “communicate the urgency” of overhauling the high school experience. Others are more specific, such as having states offer competitive grants to spur school innovation, as XQ did, and provide additional autonomy to district schools, as has been done in Colorado.

XQ also wants more students to progress through classes based on measurements of their skills, not a set number of semesters or “seat time.” It’s an approach that has a lot of overlap with technology-based “personalized learning,” which is backed by other major funders including the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative. (CZI is a supporter of Chalkbeat.)

Meanwhile, XQ suggests states require that the courses necessary for earning a high school degree mirror those required to apply to a state public university system.

Together, the policies are meant to make high school more engaging and prepare students more directly for college and work.

The initiative’s ideas have garnered support from ideologically diverse sources. The Betsy DeVos-led U.S. Department of Education hosted a summit late last year that featured some of the same schools that won XQ grants and also called for leaders to rethink schools. (DeVos’s schedule indicates that she met with Ali and Powell Jobs in July 2017.)

An image from XQ’s recent report.

XQ itself has also drawn praise from American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten. “America’s students need their high schools to be places where everyone can gain the skills they need to be ready for college, apprenticeships or other career paths — and for the rest of their lives,” she said in a statement. “The XQ report is a thorough blueprint for how states and school districts can help public schools achieve this.” (A spokesperson for AFT did not respond to an inquiry regarding whether the union has received funding from XQ or Emerson.)

Carmel Martin, a managing director at the Emerson Collective and an author of the XQ report, said that the organization sent the report to governors and she recently spoke to education staffers at the National Governors Association conference.

“We’re sharing [our research and experiences] with policymakers across the political spectrum,” she said. “We stand ready to help them move forward with these policy recommendations.”

The organization has also published a number of resources, including online guides to the science of learning and student engagement, as well as kits for people interested in running for local school boards. XQ says it provides ongoing support to the schools it’s funding, including through a five-day seminar this summer.

In addition to the $130 million those 19 schools have been pledged, a 2016 tax form shows XQ spent over $38 million building public awareness of its work that year, including a nationwide bus tour. (XQ says the tour hit 66 cities and included 68 student roundtables.) It spent an additional $5 million to run the award competition. The organization declined to offer additional spending figures.

If you build it, will they come (and will it work)?

Will it all be enough to spur action, and if so, how successful will those changes be?

That depends on several factors, including whether XQ can convince policymakers that reforming high schools is the right way to prepare for the “future of work.” That idea, that the economy is rapidly changing while schools have lagged behind, is the centerpiece of its latest pitch to state leaders. (As Chalkbeat has reported, there’s mixed evidence on just how fast the economy is changing and the claim that schools haven’t changed in 100 years.)

Those policymakers will also have to contend with the fact that a number of those policies have been tried elsewhere and faced setbacks.

In 2012, for instance, Maine passed a law creating a competency-based high school diploma. Students were to graduate based on whether they demonstrated proficiency in given areas, not based on how many classes they passed. It’s the sort of approach XQ says it favors, but earlier this year, Maine repealed the model before it was ever fully implemented. “I think this program is just set up with every opportunity in the world to put in the minimal amount of work,” one parent said.

Other XQ policies, like expanding career and technical education, have a longer track record and solid research base. Some, like improving teacher preparation and their ongoing training, have widespread support, though educators have long wrestled over how best to do it.

Another question is whether XQ will be able to use their 19 schools as proof points. XQ says it is already seeing results, pointing to D.C.’s Washington Leadership Academy, a charter school that won an XQ grant. That school has expanded the number of city students, particularly black students, taking computer science, XQ said, and posted strong test scores.

Michele Cahill, XQ’s managing director of education, said the schools would be judged in a variety of ways, including a suite of SAT tests that all of the schools have agreed to take. XQ is also working on guides for evaluating its schools in partnership with the external research group CREDO, and says it will publicly report on those results in the future.

Simmons said one challenge of the approach is that simply creating a handful of successful schools doesn’t mean their approaches will catch on. “That viral theory of action has failed time and time again,” he said.

And Megan Tompkins-Stange, a professor who studies education philanthropy at the University of Michigan, noted the challenge of expanding on success. “It’s very difficult to scale up local innovation with quality and consistency across a very large number of sites,” she said.

Cahill of XQ said creating a movement won’t be easy, but it can be done, in part through inspiring people.

“We believe broad change of this magnitude requires a cultural shift, [so] we’ve made it a part of our wheelhouse, investing our time, attention and resources not just in creating proof points at the school, district and state levels but also in the effort to win hearts and minds,” she said.

Rick Hess, director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, said past efforts similar to XQ’s have been “remarkably unsuccessful.”

But, Hess said, “The fact that it’s historically been incredibly hard to do in a sustainable way doesn’t mean you can’t do it.”