Fair Haven School Revamps Bilingual Ed

When Principal Heriberto Cordero arrived at Fair Haven School four years ago, the classrooms still had chalkboards. The computers were “antiquated.” And the biggest “red flag”? Classroom shelves had hardly any books in Spanish for bilingual students to work on their reading skills.

“Literacy is literacy, whether you’re talking about Spanish, French or Chinese,” Cordero said recently. “Once you can get a child to move in literacy, you can get them to transfer over to any language.”

Cordero now has stacks of papers around his office for each of the grants he’s managing to bring in more resources to Fair Haven, helping newcomers with limited English get up to speed with their classmates.

Each year at Fair Haven School, Cordero’s faculty does its best to help non-native speakers catch up on their math and reading skills, while also learning the English language over a five-year period.

But even as those students make gains, new arrivals from foreign countries who are starting from scratch don’t stop filling up the classes, leading to vastly different language abilities within the same grade.

That never-ending task —  bringing all of Fair Haven’s English language learners up to proficiency, as more new arrivals claim desks each year —  is Cordero’s daily challenge on Grand Avenue within the district’s largest elementary school.

International Student Body

More than half of the 800-plus students at Fair Haven grow up speaking a foreign language.

Since he’s arrived, with additional state support, Cordero has been able to mount smart-boards over the black slates, connect students with their own tablet or laptop and stock the shelves with books in multiple languages. He has also realigned the school’s programming to make sure teachers are working together on supporting English language learners across grades, even though their fluency might differ immensely within the same grade.

Previously, “everyone had a personal opinion about the right way to do it,” switching back and forth between the level of English and Spanish from year to year, Cordero said. “In every program, there’s a big variety [in students’ English language skills], so technically they were all right individually. But when you put it together, it made no sense for kids.”

The school long had three tracks for English language learners: a transitional bilingual program, in which students begin in Spanish-only classes but gradually add more English over several years; a newcomer program, in which Arabic and Pashto speakers rapidly transition into English within a year; and an English as a second language program, in which tutors provide support in English-only classes.

Cordero said that his team has delved into the data to get a better sense of how each program was working, particularly as students transition out of English language learner status.

They found that the exit from the transitional bilingual program was rough on students. “The supports in Spanish were great, but they were so low in English,” Cordero said.

Overall, throughout the city, New Haven’s ELLs are growing just behind the statewide average on measures of how quickly they progress in their reading and math classes each school year.

Last year, compared to other Connecticut schools districts with large populations of ELLS, New Haven came up in the middle of the pack. When it came to measuring English literacy and oral skills specifically, its ELLs finished behind Stamford and Danbury, yet ahead of Hartford, Waterbury and New Britain.

As a solution at Fair Haven, Cordero brought in the Center for Applied Linguistics to help teachers with making specialized language clearer to English language learners. That model showed how students can pick up unfamiliar academic words with demos, pictures and objects, then reinforce those definitions with small-group discussion.

Getting that right is particularly important because English language learners don’t get extra instructional time to work on their language skills. They need to learn a new language at the same time that they’re staying on top of their math and science lessons, making it essential to “front-load vocabulary,” Cordero said.

“There should be no excuse if a child has been with us five years, we should have had some sort of impact in moving that child either to proficiency or really close or identified a special need,” Cordero said. “We should have something; we can’t just ignore it.”

Dual-Language Immersion

Soon, that might not be as much of an issue. Fair Haven is moving its students from transitional bilingual programs into dual-language immersion programs. In those classes, students learn all their subjects in both English and Spanish, ideally ensuring they’re picking up the concepts while becoming bilingual.

“The premise of the transitional bilingual model is to strip away Spanish and throw them into English as quickly as possible, the faster the better,” Cordero said. “Dual-language capitalizes on the knowledge of English and Spanish that students bring to the table already. It’s much more powerful to be proficient in English but not forget Spanish.”

That model is building up year by year at Fair Haven, now reaching up to the second grade. Unlike some dual-language immersions that end in middle school, Fair Haven will eventually extend it through eighth grade.

Through a School Improvement Grant from the state, Cordero is also building on technology that allows students to work on math and literacy at their own pace, while also buying more textbooks and other kits in multiple languages.

One of his teachers is also running a language development STEAM lab that builds up language skills through robotics, coding and other tech lessons.

“The kids here have never had that. It blows my mind, the possibilities that we have for our kids, many who come from a disadvantaged place,” Cordero said. “We’re doing everything we can to make them at an advantage in the world.”

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posted by: 1644 on March 5, 2019  6:59pm

I thought Gethings was a star.
Now, NHI says she left Fair Haven in terrible shape.
Personally, I wonder why money is being spent on smart boards at $6K or more a piece when textbooks are lacking, teachers have to buy there own classroom supplies, and librarians and teachers are being let go. And coding is great, but aren’t reading and math proficiency more important?  How many students are reading at grade level?  Passing the state exams?

posted by: Xavier on March 5, 2019  8:11pm

Not sure what qualifications that Cordero has to be school leader.

Teachers and concerned parents have found the leadership of FHS wanting. Thankful that despite poor school leadership, certain teachers still manage to provide positive educational experiences for the children.

Nearly 800 in the Fair Haven School, the highest number of monolingual Spanish children in the city but with the lowest per student funding. Most of these immigrant parents are not voters and by in large not “connected.”

Cronyism continues to be the cause of systemic mediocrity.

Columbus Academy, interestingly enough, in the same neighborhood, with a phenomial school leader and teaching staff has children taking high school Spanish, and doing well, in a well implemented dual language program.

Too bad there is not more cross communication with school leaders in the NHPS system, as it could help with efficient implementation of programs, rather than re-inventing the wheel or giving school leaders pet projects for their career rather than what is the best practice for the children.

posted by: ms.mary on March 5, 2019  9:27pm

When I read this article I felt great pride and thanks to the staff at fair haven.They are awesome.Gethings and Cordero both did amazing jobs getting everything they needed for the school.THis article is about the amazing Dual language program.I love Columbus and they are doing a great job.Lets be about that people.Lets be positive for our children.Go eagles 🦅

posted by: wendy1 on March 5, 2019  11:26pm

Thank god for teachers like these.  NHPS system is the best thing in the city.  I have met teachers and principals who have put up with hell and high water for the city’s children.  Teachers are not well paid but are willing to live meager lives because they are devoted to teaching and believe they are helping people.  I honor these people and I will help them as much as I can if I am elected.

posted by: mechanic on March 6, 2019  9:07am

1644, this article is in no way an indictment of Gethings.  Since she left, the school became the Newcomer’s school, meaning that students just entering the EL program would be placed there.  East Rock was the Newcomer’s school before this honor went to Fair Haven.  Cordero and Fair Haven School have been working to meet the needs of this very diverse group of learners, coming in with a vast array of language acquisition, background knowledge, and experience in school.  In many ways, Fair Haven is a very different school than the Fair Haven School that Ms. Gethings led.

posted by: Xavier on March 6, 2019  12:42pm

….and so mechanic, we have a still very green school leader, who continues to flounder, but because of the cronyism in the system, will continue the hit or miss strategy that plagues the NHPS and rightly gives the concerns of non-city state pols credibility with respect to the return on investment of state tax funds in the NHPS.

Once this “school leader” moves on to downtown or to another “less” challenging school, FHS will be on the state DOE watch list.

posted by: Tanya KG on March 6, 2019  2:09pm

Mechanic - respectfully, that’s not entirely accurate. Agreed that it’s an honor and a challenge to serve Newcomer students, but Fair Haven was designated as the school system’s home for Newcomers when East Rock School began the rebuilding process. This was before Principal Gething’s turn at the helm - Kim Johnsky was principal of FHS (and Gethings, vice principal) at the time they transitioned from East Rock (I’m fairly certain of those facts, but happy to be corrected). Principal Cordero and his team inherited the Newcomer Program.

posted by: George Polk on March 6, 2019  4:15pm

While the title of this article is generic in its use of bilingual we are pretty much talking Spanish to English and Fair Haven should be a “magnet” or the assigned school for all students who are Spanish as first language. While this may sound like a segregated policy, this is the creation of years of New Haven’s policies I am waiting for the day a School Director says that all teachers must be fluent in Spanish or they will be let go. Has there ever been a study if African American children’s learning has been negatively affected due to the classrooms language “diversity”? This is not a rant but an honest question about the continued decline of New Haven’s schools.

posted by: 1644 on March 6, 2019  4:55pm

Tanya: What does “Newcomer school” actually mean?  Are all hispanophone students sent there until fluent in English?  Are other English language learners sent there as well, until they get a grasp on English? (I had though John Daniels was the bilingual school.

posted by: Kevin McCarthy on March 6, 2019  9:39pm

1644, a partial answer (I’m sure there are people who know more about this than I do). I volunteer at East Rock and Columbus schools, both of which serve English language learners. The bulk of the ELL students I have interacted with at Columbus speak Spanish. There is more of a mix at East Rock, including Arabic and Chinese speakers.

posted by: tmctague on March 7, 2019  8:21am

George Polk,

The majority of English learners at Fair Haven are native Spanish speakers, but the number of other native languages is nothing to sneeze at.  I teach at the third largest high school, and half of my EL students are native Spanish speakers (which sort of ignores the significant differences in Spanish dialects - like a British cockney accent next to a highland Scottish accent next to a South Boston accent next to a Cajun accent) and the other half represent languages from all over the world.

In regards to Black students or students that are not Latinx, educators will tell you these strategies for language acquisition and literacy are beneficial to all students.  It sounds cliche, but the classic example is the benefits we all reap from curb cuts.  Curb cuts were intended to help people in that have trouble navigating steep curbs, but we’ve all been thankful for those curb cuts for whatever reason.  These strategies have a similar side effect, so I hope this helps answer your question.

posted by: 1644 on March 7, 2019  9:50am

(1)  I hate curb cuts.  They fill with water, which often freezes, creating a dangerous situation.
(2) Highlanders are relatively easy to understand, as they have learnt English within the past two hundred years.  More difficult for us is the Scots dialect about Glasgow and Ayrshire.

posted by: Tanya KG on March 7, 2019  10:36am



They’re older articles, but still relevant. Both describe the Newcomer program a bit.

posted by: George Polk on March 7, 2019  10:47am

@tmctague No not really, I do know “Educators” tell us a lot of strategies many often have low rates of success. Anybody remember the 1990’a New Haven’s discussions of Ebonics? Before all Western Europeans became White, regional accents in the United States formed because of the “broken” English as the migrants realized that the United States was not Europe and that they had to learn English. In large cities “accents” could differ by a few city blocks. Might you define a Curb Cut for us laymen? @Kevin there is a bit more of a mix in East Rock? Really what might be the reason for that?

posted by: tmctague on March 7, 2019  8:34pm

George Polk,

I was born around that time, what did NHPS do with Ebonics? 

Ebonics is a good example of the broad benefits of dual language schools; ingrained in the program is culturally responsive teaching that honors and respects a student’s native language, or in this case the dialect Ebonics.  Teachers are taught to respect the language a student speaks at home, and use it to teach new language and literacy skills. 

I imagine this school aims to teach all students English in a way that does not come at the expense of any group of students, and benefits all of them. 

A curb cut is a dip in the curb near a corner or crosswalk where a wheelchair, bike, or delivery cart can easily move onto the sidewalk.  It benefits many people in a variety of ways.  This type of schooling is equivalent to that example in the way it benefits all students, not just English learners. 

If you were confined to a wheelchair, you might appreciate curb cuts, so try to think about the experience of other people once in a while.  Research the philosophy of Jesus Christ.  My dialect example did not rank the accents in terms of difficulty of personal comprehension, it only stood to dismantle the monolithic view of Spanish as a static language.  However, once again the troll becomes the trolled, as everyone knows the most difficult Scottish accent is the Glaswegian.  #served

posted by: 1644 on March 7, 2019  11:55pm

tmctague.:  Not everyone has lived in Scotland, so, I doubt “everyone” knows the differences amongst Scottish accents/dialects.  Personally, I didn’t have any problem understanding Highlanders, whereas Port Glasgow took six months to penetrate.  As for curb cuts (and kerb cuts!), of course they help wheelchair users most of the time, but they aren’t a purely positive thing.  Few things are.  Lastly,  I wasn’t trying to troll you. However, since we are in the business of personal attacks, you might trying not foisting your religious interpretations on others and generally being less self-righteous.

posted by: George Polk on March 8, 2019  11:34am

@tmctague: Ebonics came across as giving up. It would be like Schools in New York City teaching school children to speak like charachters from “Goodfellows” or “Jersey Shore” rather than correct pronunciation. With some many Northeasterners flocking south the schools would have to instruct the children that when identify a group it’s Y’all not Y’use as in Y’use guys.