Lost in Translation

A message for teachers of immigrant children: You make a difference

PHOTO: Scott Elliott
A panel discussion at the Central Library tonight focused on English language learners. Pictured are moderator Hayleigh Colombo of Chalkbeat; May Oo Mutraw, the founder of the Buremese Community Center for Education; Indianapolis Public Schools teacher Eddie Rangel; and Southport High School student Elly Mawy.

When an Indianapolis school meets new students from Burma, there is a lot the teachers, staff and their new classmates can’t imagine about the students’ life experiences.

May Oo Mutraw, the founder of the Burmese Community Center for Education, said schools often don’t understand what it means for families that come from a country like Burma, which has been embroiled in civil war for decades.

“These people lived literally in the war zones,” she said. “Their villages were burned down. They hid in the forest. If they heard boots of the soldiers, they fled again.”

For some, Indianapolis is the first place they’ve ever learned in an organized way.

“We are talking about a generation of people who did not get to go to school,” Mutraw said.

Mutraw joined Indianapolis Public Schools teacher Eddie Rangel, Southport High School student Elly Mawi and Charlie Geier, who heads the Indiana Department of Education’s English language learning efforts, for a panel discussion tonight to discuss the challenges of teaching children who are still learning to speak English.

The panel, moderated by Chalkbeat Indiana’s Hayleigh Colombo and held at the Central Library, was a follow-up to a series of stories jointly published last month by Chalkbeat, the Indianapolis Star and WFYI Public Media.

The series, called Lost In Translation, explored the challenges Indiana schools face to serve a fast-growing population of immigrant students. The stories reported funding had fallen behind as the number of English language learners has nearly tripled in Marion County.

Elly Mawi, a senior at Southport High School, came to the United States from a refugee camp after her family fled Burma. She praised Southport for being welcoming to immigrant students, but said she and her Burmese classmates do sometimes hear complaints in the community about the cost of serving them.

“We get a lot of misunderstanding,” she said. “They think we come here because of greed. We come here in the first place because we are at the line of life and death. You either die or escape.”

Last week, proponents of English language learning programs got some good news: the legislature more than doubled a grant program that supports instruction for children learning to speak English. Key lawmakers said the series helped raise awareness of the need for more funding.

Geier said the funding boost was an important step forward. Another recent upgrade was Indiana’s move to higher quality diagnostic tests schools now use to evaluate English language learners called World Class Instructional Design and Assessment.

The next step, he said, was to improve and expand training and license requirements for teachers of English language learners.

Just 900 Indiana teachers have a credential for expertise in teaching children learning to speak English on their teaching licenses, he said. Programs to prepare those teachers range wildly in what they require. Some require much less classwork and student teaching than others.

“We need to think about quality,” he said. “We have to have the right person doing the right work.”

Teachers who are dedicated to helping English language learners make a huge difference, said Mawi. Her teachers went above and beyond to help her. They met with her after school. They helped her fill out her college applications.

Mawi, who will graduate third in her class at Southport and will attend Butler University next year on a full scholarship, had a message for teachers of English language learners from all immigrant children like her:

“We thank you,” she said. “We love you. You make a difference every day in our lives.”

choice words

Colorado’s Spanish spelling bee is growing as more students, from different backgrounds, take on the challenge

File photo from 2012 National Spanish Spelling Bee. (Courtesy of National Spanish Spelling Bee)

Almost 50 Colorado students are getting ready to compete this weekend in a spelling bee where they’ll be spelling words in Spanish.

In addition to breaking down words letter-by-letter, in Spanish, students must include special marks, such as accents or capital letters, in the right places.

“One of the common misconceptions is that it is easier to spell in Spanish than it is in English, but it absolutely is not,” said Jorge Garcia, executive director for the Colorado Association for Bilingual Education, the organization hosting the state spelling bee. “They don’t just memorize words. Cognitively, it’s a good exercise for them.”

Most students who participate are native Spanish speakers, but a handful of students are native English speakers who learn Spanish as a second language. Garcia said two years ago, a second-grade girl whose first language was English placed second in the state bee.

“All she did to prepare was read,” Garcia said. “She was just a voracious reader.”

2018 Colorado Spanish Spelling Bee
    When: Starts at 9 a.m. Sat. April 7
    Where: Kepner Legacy Middle School
    911 S. Hazel Court, Denver

    Free for the public to watch

Colorado’s Spanish Spelling Bee is in its third year — and is growing. This Saturday’s competition will be held at a school in Denver, but will include students from 14 schools across the state, including from as far away as Telluride.

“Every year it has been growing,” Garcia said. The first year the state competition included about 34 students from nine or ten schools, he said.

Students from second through eighth grade can participate. The students first participate in a spelling bee at their school to earn a spot at the state competition.

Three top spellers get to go to the National Spanish Spelling Bee in San Antonio.

David Briseño, founder and the coordinator of the National Spanish Spelling Bee, said this year’s national competition is drawing students from about 13 states. Next year, organizers are working to host the national competition in Colorado.

“If we do that, we want to get even more of our kids involved,” said Garcia.

2017 winners of Colorado Spanish Spelling Bee. (Photo provided by Colorado Association for Bilingual Education)

Colorado students were among the first to participate in the national spelling bee when it started in 2011, back before the state competition existed.

David Smith, a librarian at Escuela Bilingue Pioneer in Lafayette, has held a spelling bee for students at the dual language school since he got the job about five years ago.

“Every school should be involved,” Smith said. “The whole idea of a spelling bee is it gets kids interested in spelling, and it just gets them more aware about words and vocabulary. For bilingual students, it’s important to study. There’s a lot of things that are similar in the languages, but it also makes them very aware of the differences so they can be better writers.”

At Escuela Bilingue Pioneer, students have library time as one of their specials (like art and physical education), twice a week. Smith said he has an ability to help students practice spelling and get excited to participate in the competition during that time.

Every second- through fifth-grade student first takes a written spelling test to qualify for the school’s spelling bee. Smith also shares the results of the spelling test with student’s teachers in case it can be used as an extra data point showing how students are learning or give them ideas about what parts of language students might need extra help on.

Smith said that when other educators reach out to him for advice about starting their own spelling bee at their schools, he suggests starting small.

Many of the other participating schools, not all of which have bilingual programs, have students participate in the spelling bee on a volunteer basis.

Smith said many students get excited once they hear about the contest and teachers can encourage more of them to practice and sign up.

Educators say the excitement, and contests, grow as students who get to the spelling bee and don’t win vow to practice more and return the next year.

“If you’re there and you see it,” Garcia said, “it’s really fun.”

Schools participating in 2018:

  • Escuela Bilingue Pioneer
  • Angevine Middle School
  • Ashley Elementary
  • Academia Ana Marie Sandoval
  • Columbine Elementary
  • Valdez Elementary
  • Telluride Intermediate
  • University Hill Elementary
  • Foster Elementary
  • Telluride Middle School
  • Global Village Academy
  • Gust Elementary School
  • Godsman Elementary School
  • Denver Language School

pre-k for all

New York City will add dual language options in pre-K to attract parents and encourage diversity

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña, back right, visits a Mandarin pre-K dual language program at P.S. 20 Anna Silver on the Lower East Side.

Education Department officials on Wednesday announced the addition of 33 dual language pre-K programs in the 2018-19 school year, more than doubling the bilingual opportunities available for New York City’s youngest learners.

The expansion continues an aggressive push under the current administration, which has added 150 new bilingual programs to date. Popular with parents — there were 2,900 applications for about 600 pre-K dual language seats last year — the programs can also be effective in boosting the performance of students who are learning English as a new language.

Another possible benefit: creating more diverse pre-K classrooms, which research has shown are starkly segregated in New York City.

Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña said the new programs reflect the city’s commitment to serving all students, even as a national debate rages over immigration reform.

“It’s important to understand that immigrants or people who speak a second language are an asset,” Fariña said. She called bilingual education “a gift that I think all schools should have.”

Included in the expansion are the city’s first dual language pre-K programs in Bengali and Russian, which will open in Jamaica, Queens, and the Upper West Side, Manhattan, respectively. The other additions will build on programs in Spanish, Mandarin and Italian. Every borough is represented in the expansion, with 11 new programs in Manhattan, nine in Brooklyn, six in Queens, five in the Bronx, and two on Staten Island.

In the dual-language model, students split their time between instruction in English and another language. At P.S. 20 Anna Silver, where the recent expansion was announced, pre-K students start the morning in English and transition to Mandarin after nap time. Experts say the model works best when the class includes an equal mix of students who are proficient in each language so they can learn from each other as well as the teacher, though it can often be difficult to strike that balance.

Officials and some advocates view dual-language programs as a tool for integration by drawing middle-class families eager to have their children speak two languages into neighborhood schools that they otherwise may not have considered. Research has shown that New York City’s pre-K classrooms tend to be more segregated than kindergarten. In one in six pre-K classrooms, more than 90 percent of students are from a single racial or ethnic background. That’s compared with one in eight kindergarten classrooms, according to a 2016 report by The Century Foundation.

Sharon Stapel, a mother from Brooklyn, said she knew early on that she wanted her daughter to learn another language and strike relationships across cultures. So she travels to the Lower East Side with her four-year-old, Finch, to attend the Mandarin dual-language pre-K program at P.S. 20 Anna Silver. On Wednesday, the city announced it will add a Spanish dual language program at the school.

“We really see it as how you build community with your neighbors and your friends,” Stapel said. “It was also an opportunity for Finch to become involved and engage in the cultures and in the differences that she could see in the classrooms — and really celebrate that difference.”

Citywide, about 13 percent of students are learning English as a new language. That number does not include pre-K since the state does not have a way to identify students’ language status before kindergarten. However, based on census data, it is estimated that 30 percent of three- and four-year-olds in New York are English learners.

Dual-language programs can benefit students who are still learning English — more so than English-only instruction. Nationally and in New York City, students who are learning English are less likely to pass standardized tests and graduate from high school. In one study, students who enrolled in dual-language courses in kindergarten gained the equivalent of one year of reading instruction by eighth grade, compared with their peers who received English-only instruction.

The city has been under pressure to improve outcomes for English learners. Under the previous administration, New York City was placed on a state “corrective action plan” that required the education department to open 125 new bilingual programs by 2013. Though the city fell short of that goal, the current administration has agreed to place every English learner in a bilingual program by the 2018-19 school year.

Among the greatest barriers to achieving that is finding qualified teachers, Fariña said. In some cases, it can be hard to find teachers who are fluent in the target language. In others, teachers who are native in a foreign language may only be certified in their home country, and it can be hard to transfer that certification to New York.

In order to open an Urdu program recently, Fariña said, the teacher, who holds a degree from another country, went through Teaching Fellows, an alternative certification program that usually caters to career-changers or recent college grads.

“I think the biggest challenge we have right now is ensuring our teacher preparation courses are keeping up with our need and demand for teachers who can teach another language,” she said.