Dual Language

For state’s only dual language program, turnaround efforts present challenges

Teacher LeiRene Perez works with third-grade students in Spanish at Treadwell Elementary School in Memphis.

When one innovative academic program bumps into another innovative academic program, worlds can sometimes collide.

Such is the case at Treadwell Elementary School in Memphis, home of the state’s only dual language program and also part of the Innovation Zone, an aggressive academic turnaround program within Shelby County Schools.

While Treadwell’s dual language program graduates its first class of students this year, the program also is reeling from the challenges and repercussions of being part of the iZone. Leaders are strategizing how to increase enrollment, retain and recruit more teachers and enrich its curriculum, which is conducted mostly in Spanish for both native Spanish and English speakers.

The challenges stem largely from 2012 when the state labeled Treadwell among Tennessee’s worst schools academically, as well as a subsequent decision by the district to move Treadwell into its iZone.

The intervention has been effective for the school overall, with Treadwell’s math test scores jumping 10 percent, but often intrusive for the school’s innovative bilingual education program, now in its sixth year.

Many parents are reluctant to enroll their child into a school amongst the state’s bottom five percent. Today, 157 students remain in the program, with just 12 students in its fifth-grade class. In addition, six of the nine dual language teachers have been replaced in the last year. And the school has had four principals in three years.

The turnover is normal for an iZone school, a demanding place for educators that focuses on intense and expensive turnaround efforts to boost student test scores. However, the interventions, which usually are conducted in English, cause frequent disruptions to the dual language program and significant challenges to its teachers, who work to build an environment of cultural diversity, while teaching literacy and content in two languages.

“We’re trying to meet the requirements of the iZone while also maintaining the integrity and sanctity of a quality dual language program,” said Talia Palacio, the program’s newest director.

The dual language program is one of three of the district’s magnet programs located at a priority school in Shelby County.

“Our dual language program is a diamond in the rough in our own corner of the world,” said Treadwell Principal Tanisha L. Heaston. “The iZone, I think, has upped the rigor for our entire school.”

Treadwell established the program in 2009 to add to then-Memphis City Schools’ extensive world language program which includes Russian, Japanese and Arabic. At the time, the surrounding Highland Heights neighborhood had an influx of Hispanic families, and the program has helped to smooth the transition for many native Spanish speakers who fill up about half of its enrollment.

For native English speakers, simultaneously learning a new language while also learning new classroom material requires the sort of brain power and decoding that results in deeper comprehension and higher test scores. Student scores have outpaced those of fellow students in the rest of the school.

Classrooms are organized in groups so that two native Spanish-speaking students sit next to two native English-speaking students. It’s not unusual to see 5-year-olds interpreting for each other the teacher’s lessons, a process that reinforces the material for children. Classroom walls are covered in maps, Spanish vocabulary lists and posters that highlight customs from Spanish-speaking countries. Teachers receive the district’s curriculum in Spanish and interpret all of the school’s other lesson plans and supplemental material.

To participate, students must maintain satisfactory grades in all of their classes and cannot miss more than 15 days of school. Older students describe the program as challenging but adventurous — full of field trips, classroom activities and imaginary journeys around the world.

“It was hard at first,” said fifth-grader Elaine Howard. “But then when you got to pick up on the language, it got easier.”

The iZone, meanwhile, is an equally intense model that relies on steady intervention and frequent assessments to make sure students are on track to make significant academic gains. An extra hour is tacked onto the school day. If students are falling behind, they’re pulled out of class for tutoring, and if enough children are behind, the lesson is taught over again. Teachers are paid bonuses for test score gains and often work late into the night reviewing spreadsheets and developing new lesson plans.

The focus and intensity of both programs sometimes don’t mesh.

During a recent dual language class, just weeks before taking their standardized tests, students hovered over laptop computers, immersed in remedial lessons. Although the Mexican flag hung over the room, indicating the language to be spoken, students were taking their online lessons in English.

“I’m not sure the district really knows what we are about,” said LeiRene Perez, a teacher in the program since its start. “They’re constantly pushing a lot more on us and the children. A child can be behind up until the fifth grade because they’re learning two languages.”

While being an iZone school is challenging, school leaders say Treadwell has benefited from numerous resources provided by the district such as laptop computers. They want both programs to be successful and hope eventually to grow dual language enrollment to 500 students. They are promoting the program in newspapers, on radio shows and at school fairs, and also are recruiting Spanish-speaking tutors.

At a school board meeting this week, dual language students spoke both in Spanish and English to describe their day at school.

“We’re producing bi-lingual, bi-literate and bi-cultural students,” said Palacio, who was born in Panama. “We want this program to be here for the long run.”

Contact Daarel Burnette II at [email protected] or (901) 260-3705.

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defensor escolar

Memphis parent advocacy group trains first Spanish-speaking cohort

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Manuela Martinez (center left) and Lidia Sauceda (center right) are among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship.

Manuela Martinez doesn’t want Spanish-speaking families to get lost in the fast-changing education landscape in Memphis as the city’s Hispanic population continues to grow.

The mother of two students is among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship, a program that trains parents on local education issues.

“We want to be more informed,” said Martinez, whose children attend Shelby County Schools. “I didn’t know I had much of voice or could change things at my child’s school. But I’m learning a lot about schools in Memphis, and how I can be a bigger part.”

More than 200 Memphians have gone through the 10-week fellowship program since the parent advocacy group launched two years ago. The vast majority have been African-Americans.

The first Spanish-speaking cohort is completing a five-week program this month and marks a concerted effort to bridge racial barriers, said Sarah Carpenter, the organization’s executive director.

“Our mission is to make the powerless parent powerful …,” she said.

The city’s mostly black public schools have experienced a steady growth in Hispanic students since 1992 when only 286 attended the former Memphis City Schools. In 2015, the consolidated Shelby County Schools had 13,816 Hispanic children and teens, or 12.3 percent of the student population.

Lidia Sauceda came to Memphis from Mexico as a child; now she has two children who attend Shelby County Schools. Through Memphis Lift, she is learning about how to navigate Tennessee’s largest district in behalf of her family.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Hispanic parents attend a training with the Memphis Lift fellowship program.

“Latinos are afraid of talking, of standing up,” Sauceda said. “They’re so afraid they’re not going to be heard because of their legal status. But I will recommend this (fellowship) to parents. How do we want our kids to have a better education if we can’t dedicate time?”

The training includes lessons on local school options, how to speak publicly at a school board meeting, and how to advocate for your children if you believe they are being treated unfairly.

The first fellowship was led by Ian Buchanan, former director of community partnership for the state-run Achievement School District. Now the program is taught in-house, and the Spanish-speaking class is being led this month by Carmelita Hernandez, an alumna.

“No matter what language we speak, we want a high-quality education for our kids just like any other parent,” Hernandez said. “A good education leads to better opportunities.”

Stopping summer slide

On National Summer Learning Day, Memphis takes stock of programs for kids

PHOTO: Helen Carefoot
Torrence Echols, a rising first-grader in Memphis, builds a tower with giant legos at the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on National Summer Learning Day.

When it comes to summer learning, it’s been a better year for Memphis, where a range of new programs have helped to stem learning loss that hits hard in communities with a high number of low-income students.

On Thursday, Mayor Jim Strickland celebrated that work in conjunction with National Summer Learning Day and against the backdrop of the children’s reading room of the city’s main library.

He estimated that 10,000 children and teens are being reached this summer through learning programs spearheaded through Shelby County Schools, Literacy Mid-South, Memphis Public Libraries, churches and nonprofit organizations across the community.

That’s a record-breaking number, Strickland says, in a city with a lot of students struggling to meet state and local reading targets.

Summer learning loss, also known as summer slide, is the tendency for students to lose some of the knowledge and skills they gained during the school year. It’s a large contributor to the achievement gap, since children from low-income families usually don’t get the same summer enrichment opportunities as their more affluent peers. Compounded year after year, the gap widens to the point that, by fifth grade, many students can be up to three years behind in math and reading.

But this summer for the first time, Shelby County Schools offered summer learning academies across the city for students most in need of intervention. And Memphis also received a slice of an $8.5 million state grant to provide summer literacy camps at nine Memphis schools through Tennessee’s Read to be Ready initiative.

Literacy Mid-South used Thursday’s event to encourage Memphians to “drop everything and read!”

The nonprofit, which is providing resources this summer through about 15 organizations in Greater Memphis, is challenging students to log 1,400 minutes of summertime reading, an amount that research shows can mitigate learning loss and even increase test scores.

Reading is a problem for many students in Memphis and across Tennessee. Less than a third of third-graders in Shelby County Schools read on grade level, and the district is working to boost that rate to 90 percent by 2025 under its Destination 2025 plan.

The city of Memphis, which does not fund local schools, has made Memphis Public Libraries the focal point of its education work. This summer, the library is offering programs on everything from STEM and robotics to art and test prep.

Parents are a critical component, helping their kids to take advantage of books, programs and services that counter the doldrums of summer learning.

Soon after the mayor left the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on Thursday, Tammy Echols arrived with her son, Torrence, a rising first-grader at Levi Elementary School. Echols said they visit regularly to read books and do computer and math games.

“We always do a lot of reading and we’re working on learning sight words,” Echols said as she watched her son build a tower out of giant Lego blocks. “Torrence is a learning child and it’s easy to forget what you just learned if you’re not constantly reinforcing.”

You can find summer learning resources for families from the National Summer Learning Association.