in focus

Push for bilingual pre-K classrooms gains strength as city expands both programs

PHOTO: Madeleine Cummings
P.S. 15 teacher Giselle Ruiz stands in front of a bulletin board that shows the ethnicities of her students' families.

School was always a struggle for Giselle Ruiz.

Ruiz grew up in Brooklyn and spoke only Spanish with her family at home. At school, though, she was expected to speak English, which meant she spent much of her childhood trying to translate between the two languages in her head.

“There was not one person who reached out to me, who said, ‘Ven acá, come here,’ which is what we do here,” she says.

“Here” is her classroom at P.S. 15 in Red Hook, Brooklyn, where Ruiz teaches in one of the city’s few bilingual pre-kindergarten programs.

For non-English-speaking families with preschoolers, bilingual programs remain few and far between, though the city is moving to rapidly expand both its pre-K offerings and dual-language programs over the next couple of years. Some parents and researchers are hoping the city combines those priorities to expand dual-language programs for its littlest learners. Until this happens, experts say, the city is missing an opportunity to teach bilingualism at an age when students’ brains are most adaptable.

Chancellor Carmen Fariña, a vocal proponent of bilingual education, has said the city plans to add or expand 40 dual-language programs in which students, usually of diverse linguistic backgrounds, learn English and a second language in the same classroom. Officials haven’t specified whether any of these will begin at the pre-K level, though, and the Department of Education does not include pre-K on its official list of bilingual programs in city schools. Department officials did not respond to repeated requests for current information about the number of bilingual pre-K programs.

That means the programs that exist are something of a citywide secret, though there is strong research on the educational power of those programs for young learners. Rutgers University researchers comparing pre-school age students’ performance in dual-language and English-only programs found that non-English speaking students in dual-language programs learned English just as well as peers who studied in English-only classrooms — without sacrificing their native language.

With little to no centralized information, parents looking for such programs have to do their own, often extensive, research. And interviews with teachers and experts suggest that even those with the time and wherewithal frequently come up short. Vanessa Ramos, a policy director at the Committee for Hispanic Children and Families, says parents often ask about dual-language pre-K programs, but she knows of very few in the public system.

“In some communities there are some private programs,” she said, “but not everybody can pay for that.”

P.S. 15 teacher Giselle Ruiz showing off her classroom's bilingual daily schedule.
PHOTO: Madeleine Cummings
P.S. 15 teacher Giselle Ruiz showing off her classroom’s bilingual daily schedule.

There are several reasons growth in dual-language programs has lagged at the pre-K level. First and foremost, most schools don’t formally test preschoolers’ English proficiency until kindergarten. Schools do ask parents about their linguistic backgrounds and teachers often make their own more informal observations, and adjust instruction accordingly. But because pre-K students aren’t officially labeled “English language learners” by the Department of Education, they usually don’t get the same intensive language supports afforded to older students.

There’s also a shortage of teachers who, like Giselle Ruiz, are certified to teach both bilingual and early childhood classes. As schools continue to add pre-K classes under Mayor Bill de Blasio’s expansion, many schools are focused on getting full-day programs up and running, period, much less ones with bilingual instructors.

Anna Cano Amato, the principal of P.S. 110 in Greenpoint, says parents have asked her to open a dual-language pre-K class. The school already offers a French-English dual-language program in kindergarten through third grade, but pre-K classes — two of which just opened this fall — remain English-only. Though Cano Amato says she wouldn’t mind extending the dual-language program to pre-K, she felt there wasn’t enough time to hunt for a qualified bilingual teacher. Instead, the school offers an after-school French class for pre-K students.

At all grade levels, parental skepticism of bilingual classes has also played a role in limiting the model’s growth. Some non-English speakers want their children to learn English as quickly as possible, for instance, and shy away from bilingual instruction, fearing it will slow down English acquisition. Ruiz encounters this attitude often at open houses, and says she’s quick to denounce it by telling the story of her own, often difficult, schooling.

Meanwhile, the city has focused on providing all pre-K teachers with at least a small amount of training in supporting English language learners.

Carmen Colón, a Bank Street College of Education instructor who has been training new pre-K teachers since August, says students often ask for more coaching on how to teach children from different linguistic backgrounds. She suggests speaking slowly and clearly in class, repeating new words throughout the day, using hand gestures, inviting students’ families into the classroom, and asking parents to read with children in their native language.

Most pre-K teachers receive similarly broad training. Patricia Velasco, an early childhood education professor at CUNY’s Queens College, says that though most of her colleagues make a point of providing suggestions on how to help English language learners, only students who are studying to become bilingual teachers take required courses on the topic.

All of this could very well change as pre-K programs expand across the city and dual-language education advocates push to reach the city’s youngest learners. They point to the work of researchers from Stanford University, for example, who tracked the performance of about 18,000 English-language learners over 10 years. They found that, in the long term, Latino students in dual-language programs performed better on state standardized English tests than students in traditional English-only ones.

Velasco predicts a course on teaching English language learners could eventually become a state requirement for early childhood education teachers. And last spring, the state department of education included pre-kindergarten in a list of new guidelines for ensuring English language learners’ success.

What learning looks like in two languages

Giselle Ruiz in her pre-k classroom at P.S. 15 in Brooklyn.
PHOTO: Madeleine Cummings
Giselle Ruiz in her pre-K classroom at P.S. 15 in Brooklyn.

Dual-language pre-K programs do exist in New York City. Brooklyn’s P.S. 9, P.S. 15, and P.S. 46, and Manhattan’s P.S. 513 all offer similar programs. A typical classroom mixes about nine native English speakers with nine Spanish speakers.

In a dual-language classroom like Giselle Ruiz’s, a bilingual teacher will spend roughly half of the day teaching in Spanish, and half in English. The bookshelves are well-stocked with texts in both languages, and classroom decorations include Spanish and English words side by side. Children are expected to interact and play in both languages over the course of the day, with the goal that everyone will become bilingual over time.

To help children distinguish between languages, teachers often turn to color cues. In Ruiz’s classroom, posters and other decorations always have English words written in blue font and Spanish ones written in red. One morning everyone spoke English, but as soon as Ms. Ruiz slipped on her red polka-dotted scarf after lunch, her students knew it was time for Spanish. Ruiz assiduously avoids slipping into Spanish unless the red scarf is on.

Dual-language programs often depend on this strict language division. But at the pre-K level, teachers say they try to stay flexible. After all, pre-K teachers work with four-year-olds who are not only new to language instruction, but to school in general.

Reina Garcia, a pre-K teacher at P.S. 46, says she starts each day in whatever language the class last spoke the previous day. This means she can continue an activity from the previous day if she feels like it deserves more time. Ms. Ruiz takes a similar approach. During a recent visit, when her students arrived back in the classroom after music class, they sang her a song in each language — even though it was English-only time. And if a child accidentally blurts out an English word during a Spanish-only activity, Ruiz does not admonish or correct the student.

Programs like the one where Ruiz teaches have emerged due to a combination of pushy parents and willing administrators. At P.S. 15, prospective parents raved about the dual-language experiences their children were getting in summer camps and school officials decided to start their program as early as possible.

A dual-language pre-K classroom at P.S. 46 in Brooklyn.
PHOTO: Madeleine Cummings
A dual-language pre-K classroom at P.S. 46 in Brooklyn.

The story was similar at P.S. 46, where administrators decided to change their transitional bilingual program into a dual-language one in response to parent demand. (Transitional programs, which have fallen out of favor across the country in recent years, ease students into English-only instruction over time.) Both P.S. 15 and P.S. 46 have also received grants, which the city still offers, to help fund teacher training and curriculum development for dual-language programs.

Class and socioeconomics may also have something to do with whether dual-language programs get up and running. As city officials have admitted, well-heeled parents from neighborhoods like Chelsea tend to clamor for them most loudly and aggressively. Though Queens has the highest percentage of English-language learners, it’s Manhattan that educates the highest percentage of them in dual-language programs.

Experts say one reason dual-language learning works is that children apply their knowledge of one language to another. Students also share skills with each other, Ruiz says, meaning something as simple as children arguing how to destroy a tower they’ve just built can serve as an informal language lesson.

“A giraffe will knock it down,” one of Ms. Ruiz’s students remarked one morning, holding up a toy giraffe. “No, today an elephant will knock it down,” another argued, waving his toy elephant. The tower won’t last, but for the native Spanish-speakers watching and listening to their English-speaking peers, the new vocabulary words could last a lifetime.

Madeleine Cummings is a fellow for The Teacher Project, an education reporting initiative at Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism dedicated to covering the issues facing America’s teachers.

Top 10

From forest preschools to a secret apology, here are Chalkbeat Colorado’s must-read stories of 2018

PHOTO: Ann Schimke/Chalkbeat
Megan Patterson works with children to make a dam in a creek during a recent "forest school" class.

We spend a lot of time at Chalkbeat chasing the news to keep our readers informed about controversial policy changes, fast-moving debates, and late-breaking decisions.

But we also relish the opportunity to dig deep into issues affecting students and families, shine light on innovative ideas, and hear from dedicated educators making a difference. With that in mind, we’ve gathered 10 of our best stories from 2018.

These stories don’t necessarily chronicle the biggest education issues of 2018, from teacher walkouts to unprecedented state interventions. But they are stories we think are important and insightful, and that we enjoyed reporting and writing. We hope you enjoy reading them.

No walls: Forest preschools let kids run free, but can they change to reach diverse families?

One day this past summer, about a dozen children frolicked by a Jefferson County creek — making pretend tea in small metal buckets, and building dams with sticks and mud.

They were students at Worldmind Nature Immersion School, where children spend all their time outside. So-called forest preschools like Worldmind are beloved by many families but face significant regulatory and logistical barriers in expanding their footprint nationwide. Here in Colorado, a pilot program could lead a new kind of child care license designed for them.

And being licensed could help the schools confront another problem: a lack of diversity among their students. Read more.

Colorado was never ranked 46th for teacher pay. Does this change the debate?

It was an oft-cited statistic: that Colorado, despite its booming economy, ranked 46th in the nation for teacher pay. The eye-popping number found its way onto social media posts and signs at massive teacher rallies last spring. News outlets latched on to it, too.

But it was wrong. Colorado was actually ranked 30th in the nation.

Our story breaks down how the mistake happened (hint: a new data system, an unrevised report) — and how groups with different agendas seized on the snafu to score points. Read more.

This is the letter of apology that Adams 14 leaders never sent

The Adams 14 district in Commerce City is arguably the most troubled and low-performing in Colorado. Just last month, state officials directed Adams 14 to hire an external manager to oversee the district’s operations for at least the next four years.

Back in September, Adams 14 officials considered taking a rare step: saying sorry to the community. But an apology letter was never signed nor sent out.

Chalkbeat obtained a copy of the letter, which makes mention of “various and conflicting priorities, coupled with constant turnover and organizational disarray.” Read more.

Rising test scores and dwindling trust: Denver’s Tom Boasberg leaves a complicated legacy

Colorado’s largest school district experienced a big change this year when longtime leader Tom Boasberg announced he would step down after nearly 10 years in Denver Public Schools.

Because of his school improvement strategies — some of which were controversial and heightened tensions with the community — the district that the new superintendent, Susana Cordova, will inherit in January is vastly different than it was a decade ago.

One tangible difference: Schools that once served as anchors of the community but struggled academically have been closed or replaced. That disappearance was on display on one of Boasberg’s last days, when he held his cell phone close to his mouth and enunciated each word so his GPS would understand his direction: “Montbello High School.” Read more.

Parents in one Aurora high school are visiting classrooms and giving teachers feedback

Like many schools in Colorado, Aurora’s Rangeview High School has a test score gap between white and black students. But the assistant principal there came up with a unique way to try to address it: by inviting black parents to visit classrooms and observe how students are — or are not — engaging with the teacher’s lesson, and then provide suggestions for improvement.

“We give true and honest feedback,” said one parent involved, “if they looked or appeared comfortable, how they interacted with the environment, the temperature of the room.”

Although the assistant principal considers the African American Parent Committee an experiment, she said it’s generating uncomfortable but necessary conversations. Read more.

How education reform became a wedge issue among Colorado Democrats this election year

For years, more moderate Democrats, often working in unison with like-minded Republicans, championed education reform efforts ranging from school choice to holding educators accountable for student performance.

But partly because of backlash against President Donald Trump and his education secretary, those strategies no longer fly with many Democrats — especially left-leaning Democrats who see them as undercutting public education and devaluing the work of teachers.

That sentiment was palpable in Colorado’s Democratic gubernatorial primary, and could shape the next legislative session, which starts in January. “Education is the issue that really stands to divide the left in a very substantial way,” one observer said. Read more.

How a Colorado school district turned things around at 10,000 feet above sea level

School improvement efforts look a little different high in the Rocky Mountains. While many of the strategies used by the 1,000-student Lake County school district are familiar to urban settings, they’ve been retrofitted to meet the needs of a district that’s 100 miles west of Denver.

For example, instead of firing teachers and principals who weren’t accelerating student learning fast enough, the district adopted a new curriculum and gave its teachers lots of training.

“The belief that the people are the problem is wrong,” the superintendent said. “Our teachers are professionals, and we believe in them. We’re proving that there is a framework or a pathway for rural schools to improve that’s about building capacity within your own community.” Read more.

7 things to know about how Colorado schools punish their youngest students

After state lawmakers rejected a bill to limit the use of suspensions in the earliest grades, Chalkbeat wanted to know more about the early childhood discipline landscape in Colorado. Data from the Colorado Department of Education revealed several trends.

Among them: Young black boys are suspended at disproportionate rates. Some rural school districts have the highest early childhood suspension rates in the state.

And despite nationwide debate about the impact of harsh discipline on young children and local efforts to bring the numbers down, suspensions in the early grades are actually going up. Read more.

In Denver’s gentrifying neighborhoods, some middle-class parents are avoiding the school down the block

Many neighborhoods in Denver are gentrifying, with middle-class families moving into what have historically been working-class communities. That type of demographic shift could easily lead to neighborhood schools that are more integrated by family income and race.

But that doesn’t always happen in Denver. Instead, data show that wealthier families – more often than low-income families – are using Denver Public Schools’ universal school choice process to send their kids to schools elsewhere in the city.

That’s a problem because research shows integrated schools boost test scores for students from low-income families without lowering the scores of those from wealthier ones. Denver officials want to see those benefits, but allowing parents to choose may be thwarting them. Read more.

Why this Colorado principal hand delivers birthday cards to more than 2,000 students and staff

Northglenn High School Principal Sharee Blunt is Colorado’s 2018 School Principal of the year — but perhaps even more impressive is the enormous number of birthday cards she hand delivers each year. If you’re one of those people who can barely remember your spouse’s birthday, you’ll be floored by Blunt’s annual feat.

In our interview with Blunt, part of Chalkbeat’s “How I Lead” Q&A series with distinguished school leaders, she talks about what she realized after a mother’s emotional reaction, and why she gave a teacher a pass during a lesson that went awry. Read more.

union power

Charter teachers won big in nation’s first strike. What now?

PHOTO: Yana Kunichoff / Chalkbeat
Teachers from Acero charter schools in Chicago protest stalled negotiations Oct. 24, 2018, as they readied to vote on authorizing a strike.

Some 500 unionized teachers joined in the nation’s first charter strike last week, and succeeded in negotiating wage increases, smaller class sizes and a shorter school day. Their gains could foreshadow next year’s citywide contract negotiations — between the Chicago Teachers Union, with its contract expiring in June, and Chicago Public Schools.

“The issue of class size is going to be huge,” said Chris Geovanis, the union’s director of communications. “It is a critically important issue in every school.”

Unlike their counterparts in charters, though, teachers who work at district-run schools can’t technically go on strike to push through a cap on the number of students per class. That’s because the Illinois Education Labor Relations Act defines what issues non-charter public school teachers can bargain over, and what issues can lead to a strike.

An impasse on issues of compensation or those related to working conditions, such as length of the school day or teacher evaluations, could precipitate a strike. But disagreements over class sizes or school closures, among other issues, cannot be the basis for a strike.

The number of students per class has long been a point of contention among both district and charter school teachers.

Educators at Acero had hopes of pushing the network to limit class sizes to 24-28 students, depending on the grade. However, as Acero teachers capped their fourth day on the picket line, they reached an agreement with the charter operator on a cap of 30 students — down from the current cap of 32 students.

Andy Crooks, a special education apprentice, also known as a teacher’s aide, at Acero’s Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz school and a member of the teachers bargaining team, said that even having two fewer students in a classroom would make a huge difference.

“You really do get a lot more time with your students,” Crooks said. “And if you are thinking about kindergarten in particular, two less 5-year-olds really can help set the tone of the classroom.”

In district-run schools, classes are capped at 28 students in kindergarten through third grade, and at 31 students in fourth through sixth grade. But a survey by the advocacy group Parents 4 Teachers, which supports educators taking on inequality, found that during the 2017-2018 school year, 21 percent of K-8 classrooms had more students than district guidelines allowed. In 18 elementary school classrooms, there were 40 or more students.

The issue came up at last week’s Board of Education meeting, at which Ivette Hernandez, a parent of a first-grader at Virgil Grissom Elementary School in the city’s Hegewisch neighborhood, said her son’s classes have had more than 30 students in them. When the children are so young and active — and when they come into classrooms at so many different skill levels — “the teachers can’t handle 30 kids in one class,” she told the board.

Alderman Sue Garza, a former counselor, accompanied Hernandez. She also spoke before the board about classroom overcrowding — worrying aloud that, in some grades at one school in particular, the number of students exceeded the building’s fire codes. (Board chair Frank Clark said a district team would visit the school to ensure compliance fire safety policies.)

While the Chicago Teachers Union aren’t technically allowed to strike over class sizes, the union does have a history of pushing the envelope when it comes to bargaining.

Back in 2012, when the Chicago Teachers Union last went on strike, they ended up being able to secure the first limit on class sizes in 20 years because the district permitted the union to bargain over class size.

They also led a bargaining campaign that included discussion over racial disparities in Chicago education and school closures, arguing that these trends impacted the working conditions of teachers.

“Even if you can’t force an employer to bargain over an issue, you can push them to bargain over the impact of an issue,” Bob Bruno, a labor professor at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, explained.

The Chicago Teachers Union also emerged from its 2012 negotiations with guarantees of additional “wraparound services,” such as access to onsite social workers and school counselors.