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Building bilingual kids: Three Minneapolis schools will offer Spanish-language classrooms for native speakers next year
Here are the elephant’s fosas nazales, third grade Andersen Elementary teacher Michelle Fonseca says, in Spanish. (Nostrils.)
He has a trompa (trunk), which one third-grader says he can use to “agarrar comida para poner en la boca.” (Grab food to put in his mouth.)
His orejas (ears) are largas (long), says one student, and suaves (soft), says another. Each writes his or her own description, in Spanish, of the estructuras (structures) that make up the elephant.
Ms. Fonseca’s students learn in Spanish half the day, in English the other half. Andersen is the first of a growing list of Minneapolis schools that next year will offer full-day classrooms dedicated solely to helping native Spanish-speaking kids become academically bilingual.
This is Andersen’s second year offering a Developmental One-Way Dual Language program, or DDL. Approximately half the school’s students sit in traditional classrooms taught in English, and the rest sit in bilingual classrooms where for at least half the day instruction is delivered in students’ native Spanish. DDL is available only to students who speak Spanish at home.
According to the district’s ELL instruction framework (see attached PDF), research shows that using students’ home languages in class allows for more rigorous instruction. The plan says that home language instruction “helps to avoid the disengagement and sense of irrelevancy that leads to current high rates of school non-completion among English Learners.”
Although school and district staff agree that the model is effective, its sharp departure from convention has raised some eyebrows.
“It’s kind of like jumping off a tree,” Andersen principal Denise Wells said.
Green Central and Jefferson elementary schools will jump off the same tree next year. Just like Andersen two years ago, the schools are grappling with tricky classroom reorganizations and parent concerns about segregation and test scores.
In with the new, out with the old
Veronica Cruz Ramos’s son is a first grader at Andersen. She wants him to speak Spanish and English perfectly so he can access the opportunities that come with being bilingual. Her other reasons for choosing the DDL program are more personal.
She doesn’t want her son to forget how to communicate with his grandparents and aunts and uncles. Without continued practice in Spanish, she thinks there could come a day when he forgets how to talk to Veronica herself.
She doesn’t know what the future will bring. Cruz Ramos has lived in the United States for seven years, but if she goes back to Mexico, her son goes with her. “There, it’s very hard to survive without Spanish,” she said.
His teacher says he’s right on track, but Cruz Ramos said her son’s English isn’t great. The school says it will get better, and fast.
In Andersen’s DDL program, kindergarteners start by learning in Spanish for 80 percent of the day, English for 20 percent. By fourth grade, it’s 50/50, at which point most are reading as well in English as they do in Spanish.
“When I think about it, it doesn’t make sense,” Wells said. “I’ve always been scared as principal to say, yah, ok, push the Spanish.”
It’s too early to declare success at Andersen, but Wells said so far the DDL students are doing at least as well as the ELD kids. State reading test scores school-wide last year were slightly higher than the year before.
According to Minneapolis Public Schools multilingual department head Jana Hilleren, research says that trend should continue, creeping towards the holy grail of a closed achievement gap.
Research also told the department that the Native Language Literacy programs, offered by Andersen, Green Central and Jefferson for more than a decade, would not achieve that same outcome.
Andersen staff didn’t think so either. Until two years ago, NLL teachers at Andersen pulled Spanish-speaking students out of class for 40 minutes of daily Spanish literacy instruction. According to Andersen head bilingual teacher Ann Viveros, 40 minutes wasn’t enough time for students to deeply develop academic Spanish. The pull-out approach meant NLL teachers didn’t know each child well, and couldn’t easily connect lessons with the rest of the child’s day.
Now Spanish language development is embedded in bilingual teachers’ instruction of core subjects. ESL instruction stays in the classroom, too. ESL and classroom teachers teach side-by-side during science and social studies lessons. Students are rarely pulled from class — another research-based approach new to the district.
ESL co-teaching is used on the English Language Development or ELD side of Andersen, too, where a number of Spanish-speaking students still enroll. That program is otherwise traditional.
Separating the Spanish-speakers
Andersen first grade teacher Soraya Valedon-Lopez helped explain the new program to parents two years ago. She said many parents, concerned about segregation and test scores, hesitated to choose bilingual classes.
Dividing Spanish-speaking from non-Spanish-speaking students has been one of the most challenging side effects for teachers and parents to stomach. Green Central principal Catalina Salas said it’s one of the concerns she’s hearing now from parents.
At Andersen, students from the two programs mix together for 55-minute specialist periods every day, and during lunch. Still, in DDL classes, kids spend most of their day with other students whose parents come from Mexico, Ecuador or El Salvador.
Green Central is much smaller than Andersen — only one-third of the kindergarten through fourth grade classes next year will be offered in English. Salas said administrators will have to work hard to avoid creating a school within a school. She said students will mix during subjects beyond just specialist classes, and the school will also offer Spanish instruction for English-speaking students.
The district does offer two-way immersion programs at Windom and Emerson elementary schools, but multilingual department staff said those programs require more resources than DDL and take longer to develop.
Reorganizing teachers has also been tricky. Wells said the change did not force her to lay off any teachers, but she asked several to switch grade levels. More bilingual teachers were added as English-speaking teachers retired or left on their own. Green Central has laid off a few teachers due to the reshuffled resources.
Beyond elementary Spanish?
Even with all the challenges, other immigrant groups want bilingual programs, too. The Somali community, for example, has expressed a deep concern that children are losing their home language.
The district is building Somali heritage language and culture programs at Sullivan and Pillsbury elementary schools, and a Hmong program at Hmong International Academy, but those programs lack the intensity of DDL. Core subjects are still taught in English.
Hilleren said the problem is practical – plenty of standards-based curricula exist in Spanish; it’s slim pickings in Somali or Hmong. Finding licensed Hmong and Somali-speaking teachers is likewise difficult.
Even Spanish-language materials sometimes come lacking features that the English version had, and schools like Andersen work continuously at building libraries of kids’ books in Spanish.
There aren’t many opportunities to learn core subjects in Spanish after elementary school. Anwatin Middle School introduced a two-way immersion program last year, and Andersen’s middle school offers social studies in Spanish, but that’s about it.
“That’s something we will tackle down the road,” Hilleren said. “One thing at a time.”