a new plan

This Colorado school district was supposed to be a model for advancing biliteracy. Now it’s scaling back

First grade teacher Nancy Carbajal at Dupont Elementary School in Adams 14 listens as students practice reading in Spanish. (Photo by Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat)

The Adams 14 school district is scaling back plans to create a track for students to follow to become biliterate, citing a need for students to learn English faster and a lack of qualified teachers.

Officials in the 7,500-student district in Denver’s north suburbs say they value biliteracy and will continue efforts to nurture it in early grades. But research casts doubt on the district’s new approach, and advocates worry that the changes will make teacher recruitment even more difficult.

Two years ago, under the previous superintendent, the Commerce City-based district had launched an ambitious kindergarten through 12th grade plan to prepare students to be literate in both Spanish and English.

The district struck a relationship with researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder to guide teachers on how to teach biliteracy in elementary schools. Now, Adams 14 is ending that relationship before the program has reached fourth and fifth grade classrooms district-wide, as originally envisioned. And the fate of biliteracy work in middle and high schools is uncertain.

New Adams 14 leaders say it’s not the district’s primary goal or responsibility to develop a student’s native language. The main goal, and where they see students being deficient, is in English fluency — which is why they want to get students immersed in English faster.

But research suggests that rushing to get students into English-only classrooms may hinder the long-term academic growth of students learning English as a second language. The implications are big in the Commerce City district, where about half of the students are learning English as a second language.

“The research is fairly conclusive,” said Kara Viesca, chair of bilingual education research for the American Educational Research Association. “We definitely know from research that students develop more dominant literacy skills in their native language making their literacy stronger — and those skills are transferable. If you know how to decode language in Spanish, you know how to decode language in English.”

But, she added, “One of the problems is it requires more patience.”

Adams 14, one of the state’s lowest performing districts, is on a short timeframe to show students are making academic improvements under a state-mandated plan.

The district’s turnaround work, approved by the state, included plans for the district to develop biliteracy options for students as well as plans to require all new teachers to get the education necessary to earn state endorsements in cultural and linguistically diverse education.

“These efforts are intended to build capacity to continue and grow the biliteracy program and to assure that the needs of our culturally and linguistically diverse student population are being met by recruiting the most highly-qualified and talented individuals,” the turnaround plan states.

Although some work to train and recruit more skilled teachers is continuing, the number of teachers in Adams 14 that hold such a qualification remains low, in part because of a high turnover.

Expanding programs requires qualified teachers, but those teachers won’t come to the district if leaders aren’t committing to the biliteracy models and the original plan to expand them, advocates say.

Under the original plan, the biliteracy framework would roll out in the elementary schools under the guidance of the CU researchers.

The plan called for three options at the middle and high school level, including a biliteracy track for students who had been in the biliteracy classrooms in elementary school, and two other options for students who want Spanish instruction but are new to it. Students taking biliteracy programs from elementary through high school would be able to earn a Seal of Biliteracy proving they are fluent in English and another language.

Adams 14 was one of three districts in Colorado to lead the way in offering the seal for high school graduates. But the district’s work creating the path from kindergarten through 12th grade to prepare students to be biliterate was the part being watched as a potential model for other districts.

“We had pointed to Adams 14 as one of the state leaders in recognizing biliteracy and recognizing that it doesn’t just happen with people talking to their kids in Spanish,” said Jorge Garcia, executive director of the Colorado Association for Bilingual Education. “It really takes work. We were extremely hopeful that the community would get a good, solid, research-based program and instruction that would really have long-term benefits.”

While officials say they will keep the biliteracy classrooms that already exist through third grade, they said they might make a school-by-school decision on whether to continue expanding the model to fourth and fifth graders if there is interest and if there are qualified teachers.

And Superintendent Javier Abrego said the district is “ready to fly on our own,” without the help of the university researchers that are training teachers to run the bilingual classes.

At the middle and high school level, officials are also hesitating to say those biliteracy options will expand as originally envisioned, saying they have to look more closely at data to gauge its effectiveness.

District officials added that some of the responsibility to help students be bilingual should be on parents.

“Spanish is my first language, but I didn’t have the opportunity of being in a Spanish classroom,” said Aracelia Burgos, chief academic and innovation officer. “I maintained my Spanish because my parents made sure that I did. I want to empower our parents to do the same.”

It’s a sensitive issue for some people in the community, as they say it brings back memories of the district’s history mistreating Hispanic students and families and banning Spanish in schools. In 2014, the federal government published findings from an investigation, saying the district was violating civil rights policies through its English-only policies, creating a hostile environment for Spanish-speaking students, families and teachers.

Colorado Association of Bilingual Educators officials say they started hearing similar concerns resurface at the start of this school year — including from teachers feeling pressure to not spend as much time instructing students in Spanish, and from families concerned that their children were no longer getting homework in a language they could help them with.

Maria Trujillo, a mom of a 6-year-old in Dupont Elementary’s biliteracy classrooms, said she was not aware the district was considering changes to the biliteracy program, which she thinks is working well for her son. She said she was looking forward to him staying in the program until at least fifth grade.

“He’s learning both languages very well,” Trujillo said. “In fact, he already understands more English than I do. I think it only benefits students to be able to become bilingual.”

As concerns about the fate of the biliteracy efforts mounted, parents, educators and advocates started packing school board meetings to voice support for the programs.

Days later, as the superintendent published a statement reiterating a commitment to bilingual education and biliteracy — in kindergarten through third grade — the district suspended Edilberto Cano, its director of English language development. He oversaw the district’s biliteracy work, the partnership with the university and the training of teachers.

District officials won’t comment on why Cano was put on administrative leave.

Rep. Dominick Moreno, a Democrat representing Commerce City, and graduate of the district, joined supporters of biliteracy in speaking to the board at a meeting last week.

“Gone are the days when speaking more than one language was a liability. Now it’s an asset,” Moreno said. “I certainly hope that you’ll carefully consider some of the changes and just make sure that all of our kids, that their multilingual abilities are understood and respected.”

Researchers and advocates say that despite conclusive and extensive research on the benefits of bilingual instruction, the programs continue to face challenges across the country by critics who often hold values that contradict the research.

“If the value is to have a bilingual kid perform as if they are English monolingual, the bilingual education research is not going to support that,” said Viesca, of the American Educational Research Association.

Another researcher, Kate Menken, who is professor of linguistics at Queens College in New York, said she gets so many calls every year from people asking if there is research on bilingual programs that she created a page on her website just to direct callers to multiple studies. One big question she doesn’t answer, she said, is around the time needed to become biliterate.

“There’s a lot of focus on speed, and trying to speed up the process, but these programs are not really about that,” Menken said. “It’s about giving students time to learn and learn well.”

District officials say they are not so confident in research, pointing to their own data from the first group of students that were in the biliteracy classrooms. Those students (this year they are third graders) are showing some growth, but they are behind students in the district’s traditional English classrooms, the district says.

Pat Almeida, the principal of Dupont Elementary, and CU Boulder researchers said those students are likely showing different outcomes because they started the biliteracy learning at first grade, not kindergarten, and because they were the first to go through the program as teachers were still learning how to run those classrooms.

According to a report completed by the CU Boulder researchers working with the district to roll out the biliteracy program, students who have come after that first group of students, including those now in kindergarten, first grade and second grade, are testing better than students who are in English classrooms.

In biliteracy classrooms, teachers instruct literacy in Spanish for at least one hour each day. There is also a period of literacy instruction in English, and teachers may use a mix of languages for the rest of the day to teach other subjects.

At Dupont Elementary, a classroom of kindergarteners last week spent their hour of Spanish literacy time sharing and discussing how to define technology and electricity.

Then, as all kids sat on the rug at the front of their class, teacher Mary Fernandez took out a large copy of a Spanish kids book about technology, and before reading, asked the students to guess if the book was fiction or nonfiction and to explain why.

The Dupont biliteracy teachers are highly qualified teachers with state endorsements, said Abrego, the superintendent. Their qualifications are necessary to making the biliteracy program work, he said.

The district is pressing forward with other efforts aimed at English language learners. Under an agreement with the BUENO Center for Multicultural Education at CU Boulder, Adams 14 pays a third of the course fees for district teachers to earn that state endorsement that qualifies them to teach students who don’t speak English. It’s called the Culturally and Linguistically Diverse endorsement.

It takes about two years of college courses to complete the endorsement. As part of the partnership, classes are offered in district schools in the evening. This year there are nearly 30 teachers taking the college classes, although a handful of the teachers are joining from other school districts.

For teachers who don’t have the endorsement, the district provides training in the district’s approaches to incorporating English language development in traditional classrooms. So far, 200 of the district’s 458 teachers have been trained in those approaches. But because the district is low on the number of coaches, once teachers take the district classes, most don’t have help throughout the year to apply the strategies.

Although getting help paying the courses is an incentive for teachers, once they complete their endorsement, Adams 14 doesn’t give them a bonus or a raise. Burgos, the chief academic officer, wants to find a way to offer sign-on bonuses next year.

Number of teachers with state and/or internal endorsement by district

  • Adams 12, 235 out of a total of 2,288 certified staff
  • Adams 14, 56 out of a total of 458 teachers
  • Aurora, 1,199, out of a total of 2,313 licensed staff
  • Denver, 3,737 out of a total of just over 5,000 teachers
  • Colorado, 5,493 out of a total of 53,567 teachers

Because teachers with those qualifications are in short supply, they’re also in high demand. This year, 56 of the district’s 458 teachers have the state endorsement. That’s comparable to numbers in nearby districts and statewide, with 5,493 of the state’s 53,567 teachers having an endorsement.

Adams 14 schools have had high turnover, although it decreased from 2014 to 2016-17. Last year, the district also had more than 48 percent turnover in their instructional staff, which includes teacher coaches, higher than any other metro area district.

Prior to being placed on leave, Adams 14’s English language director, Cano, was also working to create a faster condensed program for an internal endorsement that the district could require to make sure all district teachers are qualified to teach English learners.

Aurora Public Schools last year created a similar internal endorsement based on 96 hours of online and face-to-face professional learning. In its second year, Aurora now has 1,199 of the district’s 2,313 licensed staff — more than half — with either the state or district endorsement.

Of the teachers running the biliteracy classrooms in Adams 14, only half of them had the state endorsement last year. CU Boulder researchers working with the district say while it would be good to have more, not expanding the biliteracy work will only make teachers more scarce.

“There is a shortage of bilingual teachers,” said Kathy Escamilla, director of the BUENO Center at CU Boulder. “But you are not going to expand a program if you’ve created hostility. You have to have some initiative to recruit and retain these teachers.”



How I Lead

Meditation and Mindfulness: How a Harlem principal solves conflict in her community

Dawn DeCosta, the principal of Thurgood Marshall Academy Lower School

Here, in a series we call “How I Lead,” we feature principals and assistant principals who have been recognized for their work. You can see other pieces in the series here.

Dawn DeCosta, Thurgood Marshall Academy Lower School’s principal of seven years, never pictured herself leading a school. Originally a fine arts major and art teacher, she was inspired to be a community leader when she took a summer leadership course at Columbia University’s Teacher College. The program helped her widen her impact to outside the classroom by teaching her how to find personal self awareness and mindfulness. For the past four years she has taught the students, teachers, and parents in her school’s community how to solve conflict constructively through the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence’s RULER program — a social-emotional learning program that brings together many of the tools that she learned at Columbia. While describing these new practices and techniques, DeCosta reflected on the specific impact they have had on her community.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

What is the Yale RULER program?

It’s more of a process, not a script or curriculum. An approach that has these four anchors: the mood meter, the charter, the meta-moment, and the blueprint. We use the mood meter to describe feelings, because a lot of times we’ll just hear “I feel happy” or “I feel sad.” You want them to be able to better pinpoint how they feel, and the mood meter is a square with these quadrants that are different colors and show how much energy a student has at a given moment and how pleasant they’re feeling. The charter is an agreement to the class. It replaces “don’t hit, don’t kick” with “how do we want to feel, what are we going to do to feel that way, what will we do if we have a conflict.” The meta-moment are six steps on how to deal with a stressful situation, and the blueprint is a plan to serve a longer-term conflict between two people- to solve an ongoing conflict that we need a plan for, that’s not just in the moment. We integrate all four components throughout the day, throughout the week, throughout the year.

What changes did you make to it to make it work for your community, and what are the specific strategies you use?

We do it with teachers, students, staff, and supplement it with a culturally relevant approach. We have 100 percent black and brown children, so this means using culturally relevant texts, since we want students learning about leaders and artists who look like them. We want them to see models of excellence in themselves and see success too in themselves in order to combat some of the negative images they see in the media or even in their neighborhoods. This is a beautiful place but there’s also a lot going on in terms of poverty and violence, which have an impact on their lives, how they feel, how they live, how they see things. We’ve incorporated meditation, mindfulness, brain breaks, yoga, and arts into our curriculum. We’ve put all the different pieces together to tap into what makes kids want to go to school and makes them love to be here. We want to use these in every grade, so that we give students a common language and kids can move from one grade to the next easily. Student ownership is a big piece, because what happens when the teachers aren’t there? Do you know how to use this in less structured environments, at home with your siblings at home?

How do you make sure vulnerable students are getting emotional support and give time for that reflection and self growth but also provide a rigorous education that meets your school’s standards?

The work that we are doing is ensuring that the kids have academic improvement and success. Because they feel cared for and comfortable, ultimately students feel successful, and when you feel successful you will apply yourself more. Right now, learning is rigorous. It’s not what it was 10 years ago. So we ask kids to think very deeply to be critical thinkers. The text that they have to read is more rigorous, ones that require problem solving (and) for kids to think for themselves. And so that by itself is taxing. And that kind of work can be really stressful. A lot of the work we’ve done is around test anxiety. We want kids to know that this is just a piece of information, you need to know where you’re doing well, where you’re struggling so that they can address areas of challenge with a little more positivity. But we see the effects of it in our academic performance.

How have you measured the success of the program?

When I first became principal it wasn’t like we were having emergencies necessarily, but we were putting out a lot of fires. Kids were just coming in with issues, getting into fights, things like that. We also wanted to bring in more of the parents, because there were some that we wanted to be more engaged. We have seen an increase in test scores, but I use personal growth stories as my data–that’s how I know that this works. When I have those success stories, when I see students that really needed it, use it and feel a change, that is the data. We didn’t actually see real, big changes until last year, when we were three years into using this new style of learning. There’s always work to be done, it’s an ongoing thing.

In your own words, what is emotional intelligence and why is it important to have?

To me, it means that you are aware of what you may be feeling at a certain moment and of how your feelings impact interactions with others. It’s about how self aware you are, how are you thinking about what you’re going to say or do before you do it, and about how you show compassion for others who are also thinking and feeling just like you. It’s about how you listen to others, how you see and recognize what others are giving you, and how you support others. We’ve been told that all we can do is control ourselves, and that we’re not responsible for other people. But I think through emotional intelligence, we are responsible for how we make people feel.

In what ways do you help take this learning outside of the classroom?

We send home activities for students to do with their families, for over vacation. It will be like, “check in with your family members on their moods for the week and on how everybody is feeling this week,” or “what was one time when you and your parents had a conflict and what did you do well or not do well.” We keep finding the means to engage the parents at home with it by having them come in and do stress relief workshops. I have students ask, “Can I have a mood meter for my mom? I think it will help her because she feels really stressed.” So that home/school piece is a really important part of what makes everything successful. We’re all supporting the kids, we’re raising them together.

In what other ways, do you help the parents learn as well, and what does that look like?

We trained a group of parent leaders in RULER, who helped us train other parents. Parents like hearing from other parents, so we wanted to make sure that it was presented to them as something they could relate to. I think that sometimes as educators we are guilty of using a lot of acronyms and indigestible words when we’re talking to families, and what we’ve decided to do is breaking it down to talking about how do they deal with stress. Kind of how we brought it to the parents is that we brought to the kids strategies on how to deal with stress. We did some yoga with them, breathing techniques, and then we just started talking to them about what kinds of emotion they go through in a day. They talk about getting kids ready, making trains, dealing with family members, and really getting out what they were dealing with as parents–all that stuff that nobody really asked them about before. Honestly, they were the most receptive group. I think talking to each other, in a place where we’re all supporting each other, creates that space that we need.

Describe a specific instance or an anecdote that you think is reflective of the changes that have happened since you have implemented these new practices. How did you see the impact?

A boy came to us in the second grade, and he had been on a safety transfer, which means that he had been in a situation that may not be safe for a child. They’re either in violent conflict with others, or they’re being bullied, or something’s happening where they need to be removed from where they are. At first we had a lot of emotional difficulties and poor relationships with his teachers, and even though he was only six or seven he had been suspended several times. His family had also shut down from the school connection because since they were constantly hearing negative information. The principal basically said “Look, there’s nothing you can do with him. It’s just too much, he’s violent, he bites, it’s just too much.” But he came to the school, and just through engaging him through some of the new practices he was able to self regulate. It impacted his focus and changed his ability to relate to others. The changes didn’t make him perfect or change who he is, but it gave him some tools to be successful and work with others. Once he had love and compassion and felt accepted in our community, all of those behaviors just disappeared. His family became more supportive and trusting and he graduated last year.

Regents retreat

Regents use annual retreat to take stock of changes in testing, charter schools and more

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Chancellor Betty Rosa, center, at a recent Board of Regents meeting.

New York State’s top education policymakers took a whirlwind tour Monday of their own accomplishments this year, kicking off a two-day retreat full of presentations and updates.

The briefings, conducted by top education department officials, served as a distillation of some top policy goals among the Board of Regents: rolling back graduation requirements, creating new graduation pathways, cutting back on state testing, and even rethinking how the board evaluates the charter schools it oversees.

Monday’s discussions largely tread on familiar territory, but here are three of the key issues they discussed.

Testing

New York State continues to be a hotbed of controversy surrounding testing, with roughly one in five students opting out of the 3-8 math and reading exams in recent years (the number is far smaller in New York City).

In response to concerns about the length of the exams, the Regents reduced the number of testing days for each exam from three to two — a change that went into effect this year. Education officials touted those changes Monday while stressing that they have gone out of their way to involve educators in the process of crafting exam questions.

“One of the things I believe is a major adjustment in New York is the extent to which teachers across New York are involved,” state education MaryEllen Elia told the board, noting that 75 percent of the test questions are released to the public. “We have to constantly be asking ourselves what can we do better.”

Still, some Regents continued to express concerns about the exams, including whether they are fair to English learners, and whether the tests themselves help perpetuate disparities.

“What research is used about what’s developmentally appropriate?” Regent Judith Johnson asked. “Is it possible to have a test question that is culturally neutral?”

Charter schools

The Regents are currently discussing changes to the way they evaluate the charter schools they oversee, including taking a deeper look at suspension rates compared to traditional district schools, and tracking why students leave.

“There are charter chains that might have 25 percent of the students when they first started and they’re claiming great growth,” Regent Kathleen Cashin said during Monday’s discussion, adding that questions about why students leave shouldn’t be “buried.”

The discussion highlights a tension in the board’s discussion of the publicly funded, privately managed schools. On the one hand, board members are often quite critical — worrying some within the charter sector. But on the other hand, they have still approved large batches of new charters, including at their most recent meeting.

And the debate will continue in the fall: The Regents are expected to consider a proposal for changing the way charter schools are evaluated at their September meeting.

Students with disabilities

The board also heard from state officials about efforts to improve access to programs for students with disabilities, including those in preschool.

As Chalkbeat has previously reported, there is a shortage of seats for preschool special education students — with students often languishing at home without education services, a problem that advocates say has only gotten worse. Part of the issue, officials say, is they don’t have a way of quickly tracking supply and demand for those programs, which are often provided by private organizations.

Instead, state officials rely on phone calls and informal surveys, which can make it difficult for officials to quickly respond to shortages. Now, state officials are in the process of implementing a new data system for tracking students and open seats.

“We need to move from our current reactive system,” Christopher Suriano, an assistant commissioner of special education told the board. “We have to start reacting proactively to make sure we have capacity.”

Grab bag

  • The Regents spent some time talking about how to measure “civic readiness” which will be a component of how schools are judged under the state’s ESSA plan.
  • New data released by state officials shows that at least 500 students with disabilities graduated this year as part of a new policy that lets superintendents review their performance in lieu of passing all of the Regents exams. Though officials cautioned that the data are preliminary, and the number is likely to increase, that’s up from 315 students during the previous year.