Teaching the ‘English Language Learner’
Look around the Roaring Fork Valley, and you’ll see that the face of primary education is changing. Over the last two decades, the valley has seen an explosion in the number of Latin American immigrants. Some who come bring their children; those who don’t often start families here.Soon after they enter America, as citizens or immigrants, these children become students, and local schools must educate them. Unless their parents speak English at home, most of the children are dubbed “English Language Learners” (ELL).Their impact has been felt in all primary schools. Teenagers who arrive at high schools speaking only Spanish present their own unique challenges. But most education experts agree that the elementary school is where the battle to assimilate newcomers will be won or lost. Get an ELL kid through fourth grade with solid reading and writing skills, and he or she has a fighting chance; fail him early and he’ll likely fail in school for years afterward.For better or worse, elementary schools are now where the highest percentage of ELL students can be found. At Carbondale Elementary, 60 percent of the student body is Latino; in Basalt, it’s nearly 50 percent. Even in Aspen, where the high cost of living has kept most immigrants out, 19 percent of the student body still learn English as a second language.
Under federal accountability standards, all children in America must be educated to a certain standard. The Colorado School Assessment Program (CSAP) makes few exceptionsfor ELL learners. Except for children in third grade, all students must take tests in English, and the majority of students at a school must pass, regardless of their native language.If that doesn’t happen, schools risk being taken over by the state. Carbondale Elementary, for instance, is in its third year of “probation” – one step shy of having to restructure under state watch. It doesn’t matter to the state that the majority of Carbondale students take tests in what for them is a foreign tongue.So local elementary schools have been scrambling to cope. These efforts have come in various forms. People tend to think of ELL education as a single, monolithic program, but ELL is as diverse as the population it serves. In the Roaring Fork Valley, ELL programs run the gamut.At Aspen Elementary School, ELL educators have opted for a “pull-out” program, in which students receive individualized instruction each day. Paradoxically, that individual instruction occurs primarily in Spanish, in the belief that literacy in a native tongue is crucial to success in a foreign one.Basalt Elementary School has taken the “bilingual” model a step further, offering an innovative program in which Latino and Anglo students trade tongues; classes alternate between Spanish and English instruction in the hope that, by the time they graduate, all students are literate in both. Spanish-speaking students who are not in the bilingual program are placed in traditional English-speaking classrooms and pulled out for individualized instruction in English.
Changing its plan as recently as this year, Carbondale Elementary has abolished its pull-out ELL program, opting for an “immersion” wherein Spanish speakers receive instruction only in English. All but a handful of teachers are now either former ELL instructors or have some level of ELL training. But the immersion program, for the students and for the troubled school, is a sink-or-swim effort, and could likely see another overhaul in the near future. AspenThe ELL classroom at Aspen Elementary School is small, neatly decorated and tucked around a corner, out of sight from the main classrooms. That’s how it goes here, at a school where two women are charged with the important but modest task of keeping Aspen’s Spanish-speaking students up to speed.The so-called “dual-language” or “bilingual” program was designed by Jamie Mahaffey and Shawn Rios, both former Basalt Elementary School teachers and both ELL experts. The approach is rooted in a distinction between fluency and literacy. Fluency, according to Mahaffey and Rios, is a student’s ability to speak and understand a language. Literacy is a student’s ability to read and write a language. Fluency is important to assimilation, but literacy determines academic success.The problem with focusing instruction in English for Spanish-speaking students is that while they are busy learning to read and write English, their classmates move ahead academically. The Spanish-speaking student, though not far behind in fluency, begins to lag in literacy, and academic performance falls off.The way to cure this problem, according to Mahaffey and Rios, is to give students literacy instruction in their native tongue – the idea being that if they’re literate in one language, they’ll find it easier to learn the other.
“We can’t have our students losing ground academically,” Mahaffey says. “If they have reading skills in their native tongue, it will cross over. The problem is not non-English students, it’s nonliterate students.”Mahaffey and Rios point out that Spanish and English share the same alphabetical system and the same cognates (English/Inglés, science/ciencia, students/ estudiantes), so reading one language facilitates literacy in the other. They also point to research indicating that bilingual instruction, while not necessarily making an impact in the early years, pays off by middle and high school; by then Spanish speakers have the linguistic base that they need.The success of Aspen’s program is difficult to quantify. There are not enough ELL students for a reliable sample, and Mahaffey and Rios expect their work won’t really pay off until students are older. But what data there is suggests success so far. Aspen Elementary School had strong CSAP scores last year; in fourth-grade reading, no students received an “unsatisfactory” mark and 85 percent were ranked “proficient” or above.Mahaffey and Rios admit there are drawbacks to the “bilingual” model. It costs money to hire trained, bilingual teachers and to buy textbooks and supplies in both English and Spanish. In Aspen’s small but privileged setting, Mahaffey and Shawn have created a program mostly unfettered by budget restraints. But this might change. Aspen School District is in the second year of a three-year program to reduce spending by nearly $1 million. School superintendent Diana Sirko has assured the continuance of the ELL program – in some form.Basalt
Basalt’s mascot is the Longhorn, but they could call themselves the Pioneers. For it was Basalt Elementary, long before Carbondale, that first saw an influx of Latino students. And it was Basalt that, 10 years ago, responded with a bilingual effort that was unique in western Colorado. To this day, only Eagle School District offers a similar program.The program is true bilingual education. All students who choose the program, Latinos and Anglos alike, are instructed in English and Spanish. The classes are taught in English in the morning and Spanish in the afternoon (or vice versa). Everyone learns together, except for one hour a day when Anglo students receive individual training in Spanish and Latinos receive training in English. By the time they leave fourth grade, students are literate in both languages.”The bilingual program is a choice we offer to parents,” says principal and program director Suzanne Wheeler. “I really do believe that literacy in a child’s first language is important to learning a second language. That’s the belief behind the bilingual program.”Currently there are 173 students in the bilingual program and 348 who opted for non-bilingual schooling, with long waiting lists for the bilingual program. The program has proven wildly popular among Latinos. But Anglo parents have proven more reluctant, and there’s not enough Anglo support to achieve the right balance of Latino and Anglo participation. Also limiting the scope of the program is its expense and the difficulty in recruiting bilingual teachers. Currently there are 10 teachers on staff – three from Latin America – and Wheeler said it was a “miracle” to find that many.Since the bilingual program was instituted, Basalt’s performance on state tests has either increased or stayed steady despite a rising population of Spanish-speakers. On the fourth grade writing CSAP test, for example, the school jumped from a score of 17 percent proficient or above in 1998 (the first year of the test) to 48 percent or above last year. Basalt has avoided a state crackdown only because it has shown steady improvement.
“We’re pleased, very pleased,” Wheeler says. “We still have a significant gap in performance between Latino and Anglos, we won’t hide that. But to keep our overall scores steady we consider a great success.”For the Latino students who either opt out or aren’t selected for the bilingual program, Basalt offers traditional pull-out instruction in English. Wheeler, whose son is enrolled in the bilingual program, says such pull-out instruction “can be a viable model,” but she also admits far fewer challenges exist for Latinos in a bilingual program.”If we had the resources and the interest, it would be feasible to run our whole school on a bilingual model,” she says.CarbondaleIf you walk the halls of Basalt Elementary, you find posters in both English and Spanish. Next to a billboard in English will invariably be a Spanish counterpart.What’s noticeable in Carbondale – a school that is now 60 percent Latino – is the complete absence of the Spanish language. Around here, with faculty and parents on edge about test scores, there’s no time or resources for bilingual education.
“We have been put on probation by the state because of our test scores,” Carbondale Instructional Facilitator Deb D’Angelo says. “The tests are in English. So that’s what we have to do, teach kids English.”This year, Carbondale has gone to a total “immersion” method, with no instruction in Spanish. In order to ensure the students swim and don’t sink, Carbondale added four new homerooms this year by making ELL instructors full-time teachers. Class sizes have thus dropped. In grades K-2, for example, there are only 12 students, considerably smaller than Aspen School District’s 15 students per class.The hope is that the small class sizes will allow teachers more time for individualized instruction.There are challenges to such “immersion,” however. Foremost, Carbondale has enacted a de facto segregation of its student body. The school offers an alternative Montessori program to its students – a “choice” program, much like Basalt’s bilingual education – but only Anglos have been signing up. As a result, non-Montessori classrooms, where Latinos are supposedly immersed in English, are often almost exclusively Spanish-speaking.”We think it’s because immigrants don’t have as good an understanding of the Montessori option, or that only Anglos can afford the Montessori preschool, which feeds into our choice program here. But we are having a tough time getting kids to sign up,” D’Angelo says.Earlier this year, concerned parents, with the help of the school district, hired an educational specialist from Denver to offer advice on how to increase the school’s test scores. Alan Gottlieb of the Piton Foundation told a packed meeting at the elementary school that the most reliable indicator of performance is not the language, but the socioeconomic status of the student body. The greater percentage of poor students, the worse the results. The more affluent students, the better everyone does.
Nearly half of Carbondale’s student body qualifies for free or reduced lunch. It is estimated that around 300 affluent students living in the Carbondale area choose not to attend the town’s public schools – a real “brain drain” according to Gottlieb.The solution, he said, is for Carbondale to attract affluent students back by offering a “magnet” system. The most obvious magnet choice is a bilingual program like Basalt’s, according to Gottlieb. It’s more desirable than “magnet” programs like Montessori because it doesn’t tend to re-segregate students.”You have the poor students in one program and the non-poor kids in another,” Gottlieb said. “That defeats the goal of attaining a socioeconomic mix.”Gottlieb’s presentation received mixed reactions from district officials. Assistant Superintendent Judy Haptonstall said a bilingual program is unlikely in the near future.”If we had seven years you might be able to implement a bilingual program,” she said. “But if you’ve been told by the state you have three years to turn things around, there’s no time for that. The program would start in kindergarten and be implemented each year for four years.”In any case, we simply wouldn’t have the money or the resources.”
Haptonstall agreed with Gottlieb’s basic premise – that a socioeconomic mix is important – but said to attract affluent students, the chicken must come before the egg.”We are taking a ‘build it and they will come’ approach,” Haptonstall said. “Our efforts are to raise test scores with the population we have. If our test scores go up, non-poor students will return.”Currently, Roaring Fork School District is holding community forums to discuss what direction Carbondale should take. One change has been decided on: Later this month, homerooms will be determined by reading level in an effort to isolate and nurture underachieving readers. But far-reaching changes – including how to handle Carbondale’s predominantly Latino population – have yet to be decided. If the school performs poorly on CSAP tests again this year, then major restructuring will be mandated by the state. The best the school can hope for is to make changes on its own terms.”We are all on edge, all in the trenches,” D’Angelo said. “It’s make or break. This is a time of unprecedented change, and we have to find a way to adapt.”Eben Harrell’s e-mail address is email@example.com
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