Bilingual Ed Overhaul Under Way

Melissa Bailey PhotoThe principal sent the alert: Ms. Lopez’s baby was on the way. Amid a shortage of bilingual teachers, Rocio Ramos scrambled to cover a class —and keep the momentum going of a new effort to revamp the city’s largest bilingual ed program.

That scene unfolded the other day at Fair Haven School, where Maggie Stevens-Lopez and other teachers have been leading an effort to overhaul bilingual education. The school, seated in the heart of the city’s Latino community, offers bilingual classes for kids in grades K to 8—the largest program of its kind in the city.

Fair Haven built the program in response to a growing population of Spanish-speakers arriving from Puerto Rico and Latin American countries. State law requires public schools to offer bilingual instruction if they have at least 20 kids who are dominant in a foreign language. Ten schools across the city fall under that requirement. Fair Haven is one of five that have revised their bilingual programs this year as part of a broader effort to better address English-language learners’ needs.

The overhaul is taking place in the face of a statewide and nationwide shortage in bilingual-certified teachers that is posing a challenge for city schools: The school district has failed to find certified candidates to fill Stevens-Lopez’s job during her 8-week maternity leave, as well as two vacant bilingual teaching positions at other schools, according to Pedro Mendia-Landa, the district’s English-language learner (ELL) supervisor. The bilingual teachers have a lot of kids to teach: the district has 2,803 ELLs, making up 12.9 percent of its 21,805 students.

A 30-Month Race

Fair Haven School serves nearly 400 ELLs, the largest population in the city. Over half of kids are ELLs, meaning they’re not proficient in English. Some are newcomers from far-flung countries like Madagascar and Burundi. Most hail from Spanish-speaking places, like Mexico, the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico. To meet the state requirement for bilingual ed, schools can choose different approaches.

Some schools have “dual language” programs, where the goal is to teach kids—including native English speakers—both Spanish and English. In that model, schools don’t have to wean kids off of Spanish instruction because it’s considered an enrichment program.

Fair Haven chose a “transitional” bilingual program. That means the goal is to transition kids from Spanish-language instruction to English. For each grade from K to 8, the school sets aside one classroom for Spanish-speakers who are not yet proficient in English. Those students get most of their instruction in Spanish and phase in more English as their literacy grows. State law gives them 30 months before they have to exit the program and join mainstream kids in English-language classrooms.

Teachers at Fair Haven made two significant changes to the way they reach these kids this year: They created a new, 100-minute literacy block for the 6th grade. And because of the wide range in English skills and experience, they created mixed-grade language classes in which kids are now sorted by language skills instead of just by age.

The changes were on display last week in Classroom 129, where Chrissy Bowman (pictured) teaches. She opened her door to a group of students for daily language arts class.

The instruction was in Spanish.

Que dibujo tienen en la mente?” she asked her class. (“What picture do you have in your mind?”) She was checking kids’ understanding of a Spanish-language book she was reading to the class.

Students then reclined in various soft places for independent reading.

Last year, all of the kids stretching out in Bowman’s reading nooks were 3rd graders. Like other elementary classroom teachers, she stuck with the same group of kids for most of the day, except when the kids went to art or gym class.

Bowman was part of a team of teachers who reviewed the bilingual program at the district’s prompting last year. Based on student performance, and the high number of ELLs, the district asked five schools—Fair Haven, Truman, Martinez, Clinton Ave, and Hill Central—to reexamine their programs.

Teachers looked at how their kids were performing once they joined mainstream classes at Fair Haven, and even how they did in high school.

Citywide, 62.3 percent of English-language learners finish high school in four years, lagging 8 points below the average for all New Haven kids, according to the latest state report. The black-Latino gap in graduation—as well as in test scores—is one factor that prompted the state to invest in a “turnaround” effort focused on helping English-language learners at Wilbur Cross High School, the high school that serves the bulk of city’s ELLs.

During their review, Fair Haven teachers noted one big challenge facing teachers in bilingual classrooms: The wide range in kids’ language skills.

Kids in the bilingual classes vary widely in how much language experience they have. Some have been learning English for two years and are nearly ready to “graduate” to the mainstream. Others have just landed in New Haven without speaking much English at all.

Teachers determined that it makes more sense to split them up by skill level rather than just by age. This is accomplished by mixing up kids in pairs of grades. Bowman worked with Emily Marino, the 4th-grade bilingual teacher, to divide their kids into two mixed-age groups for English class and for the morning literacy block, which is mostly in Spanish. Bowman takes the beginners; Marino takes the more advanced group.

So the end of the literacy period, some kids headed for the door to the higher English class. Others joined from Marino’s class. Bowman assembled them back on the reading mat. This time, they read in English. Students looked at pictures in a series of “little books”  by Lisa Trumbauer and gave descriptions.

“Green frog!” said one.

“Ants!” said another.

“Snake yellow!” said a third.

Bowman stepped in with a correction. “No se dice ‘snake yellow.’” Try “yellow snake.”

Then she split students up into groups of three, where they practiced reading and making observations with each other.

“The most important thing is to speak English,” Bowman told her students. By mixing together, she said, kids would pool their collective vocabularies and learn new words.

Bowman said in her class, she teaches vocabulary in both languages, but the fundamental concepts in Spanish. The philosophy behind the method is that kids do much better if they develop literacy in their own language before switching to a foreign tongue. If schools simply force kids to learn in English from Day One, they may lose the knowledge and skills they built in their own language, because they’re spending so much time and energy just figuring out what the words mean. This way, new English learners can develop writing skills along with other 3rd-graders—they’re just developing them in a different language. 

The new setup requires much more daily shuttling between classrooms.

“It’s a lot of transitions,” she said.

Bilingual Shuffle Hits 5 Schools

New transitions are also taking place at four other schools this year, according to ELL Supervisor Mendia-Landa.

Last year, Hill Central School had a transitional bilingual program similar to Fair Haven’s, except for grades K to 4. This year, Hill Central eliminated the bilingual classrooms in grades 3 and 4, Mendia-Landa said.

Roberto Clemente Leadership Academy, just a stone’s throw away from Hill Central, added transitional bilingual classrooms in grades 3 and 4. That school now offers bilingual education in grades 3 to 8.

Clinton Avenue School in Fair Haven chose to phase out its K-2 transitional bilingual program for a “dual language” program, according to Mendia-Landa. That means kids will try to gain fluency in both Spanish and English. In 3rd grade, they can join a “bridge” classroom to help them transition to the mainstream.

Clinton Avenue has begun the phase-in by switching its transitional bilingual kindergarten class to a dual language program. As those kids grow older, the dual language program will grow, until it encompasses grades K to 2.

Starting in September, John Martinez School and Truman School both converted their K to 2 transitional bilingual programs into “English immersion” programs, Mendia-Landa said. The classes are taught by certified bilingual teachers. Most of the instruction—90 percent—is in English. The teachers use Spanish as a “support,” Mendia-Landa said.

Ten total schools in New Haven offer bilingual classes. Quinnipiac and Strong schools both run K-2 transitional bilingual programs. John Daniels School and Christopher Columbus Family Academy run dual language programs in grades K to 6.

The Shortage

The efforts are taking place amid a statewide shortage in bilingual teachers.

The shortage became apparent in Fair Haven, when Stevens-Lopez began her eight-week maternity leave.

Stevens-Lopez, Bowman and Kristin Mendoza have been leading the effort to overhaul the ELL programs. All three were tapped as teacher “facilitators,” new leadership positions created this year.

Principal Margaret-Mary Gethings said the school interviewed four candidates to sub for Stevens-Lopez during her leave. None of them worked out: One taught a model lesson and was “not a good fit.” Three others weren’t certified: They were college kids without enough credits to begin working as subs.

Gethings said the school has not had a vacancy in bilingual ed before, because teachers tend to stick around.

“We generally keep our teachers,” Gethings said.

For a highly transient student population, the school has a stable adult staff: Only five of 65 teachers are new this year. Teacher satisfaction is high, according to annual school surveys: A whopping 93 percent of teachers said they’d recommend the school to a colleague, compared to 68 percent across all K-8 schools.

“The concern is keeping the school going”—maintaining the level of services staff has been providing.

The school district also has vacancies in bilingual ed at Quinnipiac School and another one at Clemente, Mendia-Landa said.

One challenge: Teaching bilingual classes requires extra certification, but comes with no extra pay. The law the state passed 10 years ago requiring bilingual education requires that teachers be dually certified—first in a content area, and then cross-endorsed in bilingual ed. That means taking extra classes.

“It’s not as if there’s an increase in pay,” Mendia-Landa said.

He said because bilingual ed is a teacher shortage area, the state offers an accelerated route to get cross-endorsed in bilingual ed. The program is for teachers who are already certified in something else, and have taught at least 3 years in the past 10 years. The program takes one year, Mendia-Landa said. The state pays half of the tuition. For qualified New Haven teachers, New Haven public schools pays the rest.

The offer still stands, Mendia-Landa said, but no city teachers took advantage of it this school year.

Fair Haven has done well developing teachers from its own ranks into bilingual ed.

Take Stevens-Lopez, for example. She used to be Ms. Stevens, a 7th and 8th English teacher at Fair Haven School. She didn’t really speak Spanish at first. She started teaching herself Spanish so she could communicate with families. Then she met and married a man from Mexico. She quickly became fluent.

Stevens-Lopez said she got her bilingual certification, and a master’s in teaching English as a second language, through a Training for All Teachers scholarship at Southern Connecticut Southern University. The program is free.

A half-dozen Fair Haven teachers have gone that route, too—including Monica Bunton (pictured), a 2nd-grade bilingual teacher. Bunton, whose mom is from Honduras and speaks perfect Spanish, used to be a union organizer. She joined Fair Haven as a long-term sub. Now she’s in her second year as a full-time teacher.

Zach Kafoglis (pictured) is teaching bilingual 5th grade. A native New Havener, he said he picked up Spanish from his peers on the Wilbur Cross soccer team. He graduated from Yale University in May and joined Fair Haven as a member of the Teach for America corps.

Gethings called bilingual ed a great career.

“An enormous number of people in K to 6 are looking for jobs,” Gethings noted. “If you minor in Spanish, you’d be employed the day you graduate.”

During Stevens-Lopez’s absence, Gethings has tapped Rocio Ramos in Stevens-Lopez’s class in the morning. An intern from Quinnipiac University will be filling in in the afternoon.

“Nothing’s Going To Change”

Ramos, who typically spends her day with special education students, got her new assignment last week.

She showed up to work to find out that Stevens-Lopez wasn’t there: Pregnant with her second child, she had just called in the night before to begin maternity leave.

{Ramos, a native Spanish-speaking paraprofessional with a masters in teaching English as a second language, stepped in to the rescue along with paraprofessional Ynocencia King (at left in photo). Ramos addressed the class in Spanish.

"I don't know if Miss Stevens is in delivery, or in the hospital," she told the students. But "nothing is going to change."

For the most part, the students rolled with the changes.

“Which page are we on?” Ramos asked. She led students through a book in Spanish they’ve been reading about indigenous tribes, stopping to check their comprehension. Then Framizes Camacho read aloud a presentation she had prepared on Los Secoyas, an Ecuadorian tribe. Framizes, who’s 12, is finishing her third year in bilingual education. Next fall, she’ll step out into the mainstream with English-language instruction.

All of the instruction and discussion took place in Spanish. Then students headed to a closet, where they took out a bunch of laptops that had been donated to the school.

The class worked in parallel to a project that mainstream 6th-grade students have been working on, too. It involves using the computer to research potential careers, and preparing a report. While their counterparts used the English-language site Road Trip Nation, Stevens-Lopez’s class clicked onto a Spanish-language version called “Mi Proximo Paso.” Students got going on their individual work without much prodding.

Oscar Morales, 11 (pictured at the top of this story), researched becoming a policeman.

Some kids did all of their research in Spanish. Others used English. One boy kept open two windows from the Bureau of Labor Statistics webpage—one in Spanish and one in English—and flipped between the two.

The class included students who are just joining the bilingual program, and those who are about to leave. Samuel Padilla, 11, who just moved to New Haven from Puerto Rico, worked alongside his best friend, Wesley Sierra.

Wesley, who’s 14, who has been on the mainland for four years. Next year, he’ll step out of the bilingual program—and, his teachers hope, with the tools he needs to survive in the mainstream.

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posted by: teacherteacher on December 30, 2013  11:24am

As in so many areas of education, standardized testing is the problem here.

The bilingual teacher shortage exists because state certification requirements are quite difficult for non-native English speakers. Many highly qualified teachers have been pushed out of the profession because they could not pass PRAXIS and CT Foundations of Reading exams—not because they do not know the material, but because they cannot complete the exams in the time allowed. Writing essays, reading passages, and assessing examples of student work in English just takes longer if it’s not your first language!

I see no harm in making these exams untimed for teachers whose first language is not English. Why not? The benefits would be huge. We would see a richer, more diverse workforce of teachers that reflects the demographics of our student population, and the shortage would no longer be a problem. I love the Fair Haven bilingual team and think they do an amazing job, but something is wrong if only one out of 9 of them is a native Spanish speaker.

posted by: Josiah Brown on December 31, 2013  2:26pm

Thanks for this interesting look at bilingual education in the district and at Fair Haven School in particular.

Chrissy (Jones) Bowman—as a Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute Fellow—developed a curriculum unit she called, “Earth in the Solar System/La Tierra en el Sistema Solar”:

She prepared that unit in a seminar on “Forces of Nature: Using Earth and Planetary Science to Teach Physical Science” led by David Bercovici, the Beinecke Professor of Geophysics.

Happy new year!