City public schools have over 3,500 students who do not speak English as a native language. The system has only 50 certified bilingual teachers to teach those students.
That English Language Learner-to-bilingual teacher imbalance emerged on Thursday night during a wide-ranging, two-and-a-half-hour workshop that the Board of Alders Education Committee held in the Aldermanic Chambers on the second floor of City Hall.
The workshop saw New Haven Public Schools (NHPS) administrators provide a snapshot of one of the largest and fastest-growing demographics in the city’s 21,333-student public school system: students whose primary language is not English.
It also brought together dozens of teachers, students, parents, school staff, education experts, local politicians, and concerned community members, many of whom testified as to how they think the public school system can improve its educational services for non-native English speakers. They offered suggestions ranging from hiring more bilingual educators to offering more bilingual electives to changing curricula to be more culturally sensitive and less Eurocentric.
“We have had two and a half hours of testimony,” Education Committee Vice-Chair and Fair Haven Alder Kenneth Reveiz said as the meeting wrapped up around 8:30 p.m. “I don’t remember the last committee meeting that we’ve had that has had that much public interest.”
That should signal to the city and to the Board of Education, Reveiz said, that bilingual education and English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) instruction is a top priority for this community.
Education Committee Chair and Wooster Square Alder Aaron Greenberg said that the committee will hold another public hearing on the exact same topic sometime early in the new year, giving the public another opportunity to testify before the committee issues a formal set of recommendations to the Board of Education.
English Learner Student Snapshot
The hearing began with a 20-minute overview of the current state of NHPS’s English Learner population, as provided by NHPS Director of English Learners Abie Quiñones-Benitez and NHPS Supervisors Carmen Rodriguez and Pedro Mendia-Landa.
NHPS has 44 schools, 21,333 students, and 4,049 teachers: 2,862 full-time and 1,187 part-time.
Forty-six percent of the student body is Latinx, 37 percent African-American, and 13 percent white.
“Our English Learners in K-12 schools represent 18 percent of our students,” Quiñones-Benitez explained. That’s 3,532 students who are classified by the school system as English Learners because they did not grow up speaking English and/or they do not speak English as their primary language at home. The number of English Learners in relation to the total student body has grown from 14 percent to 18 percent over the past five years.
Of those over 3,500 English Learners, 85 percent speak Spanish as their primary language. The next most popular home languages are Arabic, at 4 percent of the English Learner population; Pashto, also at 4 percent; and Mandarin, at 1 percent.
Fair Haven School has the highest number of English Learners at 446, followed by John S. Martinez School and Columbus Academy, both of which have 233. New Haven Academy has the lowest number of English Learners at 2, followed by Elm City Montessori at 5 and West Rock Academy at 7.
To teach that population, the city currently employs 50 bilingual teachers, 33 ESOL teachers, 14 ESOL and bilingual support tutors, four instructional coaches, and one director and two supervisors of Bilingual/ESOL programs.
The district offers dual language immersion programs at Columbus Academy, John C. Daniels School, Clinton Avenue School, and Fair Haven School, where in certain grades and in certain subjects, students are taught in their native language (almost always Spanish, but some bilingual programs are offered in Arabic and Mandarin as well). The district also offers ESOL support programs at dozens of schools, including Fair Haven School, Lincoln-Bassett School, John S. Martinez School, and many more.
“The state says that for every 50 English Learners, we should have a teacher for speakers of other languages,” Quiñones-Benitez said. “We are not near that, but that is a goal that we can have for the future.” She said the district has already trained 90 general education teachers in Sheltered Instruction (SI) strategies for delivering grade-level content in formats that English Learners can understand.
She said her department is prioritizing not only expanding dual language programs, but also in providing SI training for general education teachers districtwide so that English Learners do not fall behind their native English speaking peers just because they are not in a bilingual classroom.
“Our students are here and we have a responsibility to ensure that their education is at the same equity and the same quality as all of our students,” Rodriguez said.
Mendia-Landa showed that a quick look at student performance metrics indicate that the school system’s English Learners are still trailing far behind their native English speaking peers in both math and reading.
Sixty-five percent of the city’s English Learner students scored far behind grade-level achievement standards in the 2017-2018 English Language Arts (ELA) Smarter Balanced Assessment, in comparison to 33 percent of native English students. For last year’s math Smarter Balanced Assessment, 67 percent of English Learners scored far behind grade-level achievement standards, while 46 percent of native-English students came up equally short.
Mendia-Landa said that English Learners and native English students year-over-year improvement rates are pretty similar for math and literacy Smarter Balanced Assessments. But the numbers show that New Haven’s non-native English speakers are still struggling to keep up with their native English classmates.
How To Improve Bilingual and ESOL Education
The latter two-plus hours of the hearing consisted of public testimony from a range of parents, teachers, students, and concerned community members about how the district can improve its education services for English Learners. In addition to the 12 people who testified at City Hall on Thursday night, Greenberg said that the committee received over 40 pages of written testimony in the lead up to the public hearing.
Those ideas and proposals put forward on Thursday night included:
• Hire more bilingual and ESOL teachers, and make sure that those teachers are fully qualified and certified for English Learner instruction. Kristin Mendoza, an ESOL and English teacher at Wilbur Cross High School’s International Academy of Digital Arts & Sciences, said that the number of English Learners at the Wilbur Cross academy has grown from 247 to 335 since 2012. But number of ESOL teachers has stayed flat at five.
• Hire more bilingual staff for outside of the classroom so that English Learner don’t feel like they can only go to the one Spanish-speaking staff member if they have a question or a problem. “I always need more bilingual staff,” said Wilbur Cross Principal Edith Johnson, who speaks Spanish fluently and is of Puerto Rican descent. She said budget cuts and the ending of state grants forced Wilbur Cross to lay off its two bilingual clerks and a bilingual counsellor, and end its social work intern program that every year hired eight Southern Connecticut State University (SCSU) students, several of whom were fluent in Spanish.
• Make sure that bilingual and ESOL instructors are trained in trauma-informed, anti-racist, and socio-emotional support practices, since many English Learners have come to the city, and to the city school system, after fleeing natural or manmade violence. “We need to make sure staff members are paying attention to our own biases that we have as individuals,” Fair Haven School fifth grade bilingual teacher David Weinreb said. That’s especially important, he said, when teachers do not come from the same socio-cultural background as their students.
• Scrap the historically inaccurate, racist, and Eurocentric pedagogy at the core of many schools’ curricula, even at those schools that are engaging in dual language immersion. Sarah Miller, the mother of two students at Columbus Academy, said that she was appalled when she heard Spanish-speaking elementary school students give a presentation during a Hispanic heritage pride ceremony about how Christopher Columbus discovered the New World. That presentation, though delivered in Spanish, included nothing about the genocide of native peoples in North and South America. She called for the school to update its curriculum to “build a bridge between the radical project of teaching in Spanish and the content [students] read.”
• In the bilingual programs that already do exist, make sure that teachers are not just teaching in Spanish, but teaching Spanish grammar and syntax and vocabulary as well. Eleven-year-old Engineering and Science University Magnet School (ESUMS) sixth grader Ambar Santiago-Rojas (pictured above) said that she was never taught Spanish grammar as an elementary school student in a bilingual immersion classroom at Columbus Academy. “We read in Spanish,” she said. “But they never corrected us if we said something wrong in Spanish. Class was in Spanish, but they never taught us the language.”
• Don’t teach just core subjects like reading and math and science and history in Spanish. Provide more bilingual electives as well, so that students can learn in their native languages through music and art. “At Columbus, they teach some songs only when at assembly,” said Fatima Rojas, Santiago-Rojas’s mom. Dual language musical education should also be a part of an English Learner’s classroom experience, she said.
• When budgets get tight, don’t turn first to bilingual and ESOL programs for cuts. Because those cuts do a grave disservice to one of the city’s fastest-growing student populations.
“I’m here in full support of endorsing dual language programs,” said Madeline Negron, the president of Connecticut Association of Latino Administrators and Superintendents (CALAS). “It’s money up front, but it’s well spent,”