At Fair Haven School, Spanish-speaking students with a bit more English language experience are getting more chances to practice it.
The school’s administrators are joining policymakers at the state level in thinking broadly about how to improve opportunities to learn English for students who primarily speak other languages.
A new state rule is allowing schools to teach bilingual education for more years than before. At the local level, Fair Haven School created a new class for advanced English language learners (ELLs) taught in both Spanish and English, following a larger trend of increasing the quality and quantity of services offered.
Until this year, Connecticut allocated 30 months — about three school years — for ELLs to learn in bilingual classrooms, before moving them into classrooms taught fully in English.
Then, effective July 1, the state Department of Education decided to allow districts to request an additional three school years of funded bilingual services in the classroom.
Commissioner Dianna Wentzell said a task force met four times to figure out how to “accelerate improvement” in ELL graduation rates and test scores. Students who arrive with fluency and literacy in their first language “will progress well,” she said.
Those who arrive with “no schooling” are more difficult to support, she said.
Local boards of education are required to make requests for extensions for individual students to the state, which will then decide whether the extension is necessary. Deputy Commissioner Ellen Cohn said the local boards must make clear why exactly extra time in a bilingual classroom would benefit the particular student. “Part of being an English learner is taking increasing steps toward instruction in English,” she said.
Classroom teachers and bilingual specialists can catalyze those requests for students with low scores on state language tests, said Pedro Mendia-Landa, New Haven Public Schools’ ELL supervisor.
“That would be the first red flag. We would also look into the academics, in terms of where they are in reading and writing,” he said. “The bottom line is to what extent the student has access to grade-level appropriate content.”
If a student can only get proper instruction in reading in Spanish, that student would likely be better off in a bilingual classroom taught in Spanish than in a mainstream English classroom. “As long as the student needs the support, by all means we will want them to remain in the bilingual setting. It’s about the individual student,” Mendia-Landa said.
New Day In Fair Haven
Principal Heriberto Cordero took over as principal of Fair Haven School this year. A neighborhood school with about 780 students, Fair Haven serves mostly Spanish speaking students. Cordero said he speaks more Spanish than English during the average school day.
Last year, Cordero (pictured) was assistant principal at Clinton Avenue School, which has been phasing out its Spanish-only bilingual classrooms in favor of “dual language classrooms” taught in Spanish and English. Clinton Avenue’s model seeks to draw in both native Spanish-speakers and English-speakers looking to start learning Spanish.
At Fair Haven, the vast majority of students are Spanish speakers. The school’s model does not prioritize biliteracy, but rather students transitioning to fluency in English over time.
Last year, Fair Haven School had one option per grades 3-6 for students relatively new to the English language—a bilingual class taught entirely in Spanish.
In the school’s new model, bilingual students with more progress in English language learning are in a new class taught half the time in Spanish and the other half in English, making for a smoother transition into mainstream classes taught only in English. Minnocci supports teachers in both classrooms.
ELLs with fewer than 10 months of English need more Spanish, while those with 25 or more months need more English, Cordero said.
“We took all the stronger students in bilingual education and put them in a 50/50 co-taught classroom with a bilingual educator and English classroom teacher,” Cordero said. “It sounds small but it’s a major change. It helps us target where they are and where they’re moving to.”
Rene Minnocci used to teach Fair Haven School third graders who spoke little to no English. Now she rotates between three third- and fourth-grade classes to get as many students as possible to build on their Spanish skills.
Minnocci’s schedule has changed along with the school’s offerings for ELLs, which now provide more options for students at different levels of ability reading, writing and speaking English.
Minnocci said she wants students to value their ability to communicate in multiple languages. She is not a native Spanish speaker, only gaining fluency after studying it in college. Her family came to New Haven from Italy.
Recently, Minnocci substitute-taught a unit on the Mayflower ship to a third-grade bilingual class full of students who were in their first several months in the U.S. She asked them to read the passage “subrayando palabras importantes or palabras que no saben,” underlining important words or words they don’t know.
“Transoceanico” went on the board. So did “basicamente” and “construido.”
Encouraging them to “try to at least maintain Spanish and build Spanish literacy skills will help them build English or any other language,” she said.“It’s good to embrace Spanish and grow in Spanish. It teaches them to be problem solvers and question information.”
Sometimes new students enter the classroom with solid Spanish literacy skills. This year, Minnocci said, they did not. For some students, such as those who came to New Haven from Guatemala, English is their third language after Spanish and an indigenous language.
Acknowledging A New Reality
So far, no one has yet applied for the new three-year extension of bilingual support, said Abbe Smith, spokesperson for the state Department of Education. ELL advocates throughout the state had rallied for the change, she said. “It’s something that people have been asking for.”
The existing standard of bilingual education is a “transitional education model,” in which students are encouraged to acquire English as quickly as possible “forgetting that they’re native speakers” of another language, Mendia-Landa said.
But state leaders are moving toward valuing “the fact that many of our students are biliterate,” able to speak and read in two languages, he said.
The state Department of Education is petitioning the legislature to allow districts to offer students a “seal of biliteracy” on their transcripts, showing they are literate in English and at least one other language. Commissioner Wentzell said the seal would represent an “asset-based look at students acquiring English,” seeing their Spanish skills as a benefit instead of a limitation.