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 dburnette@chalkbeat.org or (901) 260-3705.

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call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at cbauman@chalkbeat.org.

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”


Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”


Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”


Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”


Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”


Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”