Lost in Translation

After fall to an F, trial and error helps Nora rebound

Tinker toys and play dough. Legos and silly putty.

Put them in the shaky fingers of a 5-year-old who can’t speak English. Could simply rolling clay or stacking shapes for just a few minutes soothe the surrounding blizzard of unfamiliar symbols and sounds?

That was the idea, and Nora Elementary School teacher Shawn Schlepp desperately wanted to try it out.

Hands on learning, such as making shapes on a "geo board" as part of a geometry lesson, is one strategy Nora Elementary School uses to help students who are still learning to speak English.
Hands on learning, such as making shapes on a “geo board” as part of a geometry lesson, is one strategy Nora Elementary School uses to help students who are still learning to speak English.

By 2013, a surge of the number of Nora students needing to learn to speak English had left the school scrambling for solutions as its test scores dropped and its letter grade fell all the way to F just five years after consecutive A’s.

An F was stingingly unfamiliar and heartbreaking.

Schlepp and two colleagues spent a day out of their weekend to pitch “creative stations.” Their comparatively modest request for $1,500, she said, could stock eight classrooms with Tinker Toys, Legos, Play-Doh and more.

Most of the five other groups asked for more of the $7,000 in prize money for the most innovative education ideas in this first-of-its-kind competition in Indianapolis. The event was sponsored by Teach Plus, an organization that aims to help teachers get involved in education policy and advocacy.

Even as Schlepp talked up the hopeful plan to the judges — six business and nonprofit leaders — her voice quaked with disappointment when she talked of Nora’s future.

Its days as a top-rated school felt long past.

“We received a big fat F even though all of our teachers are working very hard,” she said, sorrowfully. “We are never going to be an A school.”

The pitch didn’t work.

The committee instead gave $6,000 to fund a pitch to launch a citywide poetry slam league and $1,000 to boost a charter school’s student-run cafe.

Nora’s creative stations never happened.

Nora’s story is increasingly common in Indianapolis: Schools with track records of success, even those that do well with small groups of language learners, can quickly find themselves overwhelmed by rapid immigration.

Over the course of a year or two, schools like Nora can find themselves with an entirely new and challenging focus as they discover their new No. 1 job is teaching non-native English speakers the English language.

An A school falls to an F

For years, Nora had done well with a manageable group of Spanish-speakers, numbering about one-third of its students. Schlepp minored in Spanish and used her knowledge to build trust with her students who had yet to learn English.

Nora Elementary School fifth grade teacher Shawn Schlepp helps students make geometric shapes on a Geo board using rubber bands during a math lesson.
Nora Elementary School fifth grade teacher Shawn Schlepp helps students make geometric shapes on a Geo board using rubber bands during a math lesson.

For her, and the the rest of the Washington Township school, things worked fine.

But by the time Schlepp stood before the judges, the percentage of language learners boomed first to 42 percent, then to 46 percent and then to more than half the school. Driving the shift, in part, was the resettlement into nearby apartments of Burmese refugees who spoke several dialects of an utterly unfamiliar language.

Teachers scrambled for new ideas.

In Schlepp’s class, for example, it no longer worked to simply pull out the language learners for specially tailored lessons during English. Nearly all of them needed tailored instruction.

That meant frequently breaking the class into small groups to better match their skill levels and language needs. But it required a lot more lesson planning. She needed the right type of learning tasks matched to the right language level sometimes for five or six groups of students.

“It was very overwhelming,” she said. “There weren’t enough hours in the day.”

But scores kept falling — for four straight years. In 2007, 69 percent of Nora students passed ISTEP. By 2011, it was down to 54 percent. The school’s grade tumbled from an A to a C and then to an F.

It didn’t seem fair, Schlepp said.

“If you teach at Nora you just have this true love for your children and for what you do,” Schlepp said. “You believe anyone can make it and you fight for them. It’s difficult to see them given expectations on these tests that are not developed for students who have been in the States for little over a year.”

Once the shock of an F rating wore off, lots of changes were made.

The district, for example, hired more teachers with language learning credentials to support the classroom teachers. The school now has a team of eight such specialists, almost twice as many as three years ago.

They work both in the classroom, helping small groups of students, and by pulling out those that need more help for extra tutoring. Those specialists also have helped train the classroom teachers in techniques that help English language learners.

Teachers feel like they are turning the corner.

Nora has seen three years of rising test scores, and its grade rose to D and then, last year, to a C. About 58 percent of students passed ISTEP. But Nora still has a ways to go: The state average last year was 74 percent passing.

So many questions

Schlepp knows something about finding yourself in an unfamiliar place. Her father was in the Navy and the family moved 22 times while she was growing up.

A first grade English language learner works on simple words with a language specialist.
A first grade English language learner works on simple words with a language specialist.

After eight years, she’s known the old Nora, experienced the wrenching transition and now is part of the team she hopes will reclaim its top quality academic reputation. But it’s a daily challenge to adapt her teaching to her students’ many needs.

Take Oliviea, an African student in Schlepp’s class last year whose native language was Swahili.

Oliviea wanted to know it all.

Schlepp would use a word like “cattle” and immediately Oliviea wanted to know: “What is cattle?”

When the class was studying the American Revolution, he could not move past one fact that struck him as bizarre.

“He would just keep saying, ‘I don’t understand why they wore wigs?’” Schlepp said. “You know what? It’s a good question.”

That eagerness should be celebrated and nurtured, but Schlepp had a whole class to teach. Still, if she put him off, Oliviea would sulk.

“His coping skill was that he would get mad and shut down,” she said.

Nora Elementary School fifth grade teacher Shawn Schlepp teaches a geometry lesson.
Nora Elementary School fifth grade teacher Shawn Schlepp teaches a geometry lesson.

Schlepp took him aside. Slow down, she told him, and let her answer his questions fully. Her answers might cover other questions popping into his mind.

It helped, but Schlepp soon found “wait time” worked both ways. Oliviea reacted better when she also slowed down, listened carefully to his questions and answered with a more soothing tone of voice.

It worked: he pouted less. But still, she worried about him when he went to middle school.

Recently Oliviea was back at Nora. He made a point to tell Schlepp he was getting his questions answered. It’s gratifying when a strategy works, Schlepp said. But that only comes after trial, error, failure, new ideas and more effort.

Even when she’s not at work, getting her exercise by running through her neighborhood, it’s hard to turn her mind away from her class.

“As I run I think about what worked and what didn’t,” she said. “I pore over it. ‘Why aren’t they learning?’”

The quiet girl

Asking too many questions might have been Oliviea’s struggle, but an even bigger worry is English learners who ask too few.

A wall display at Nora Elementary School welcomes students in several languages
A wall display at Nora Elementary School welcomes students in several languages.

That’s something Schlepp watches for: The culture shock for her immigrant students can be jarring but also easily overlooked.

Last year, Schlepp had a student move in from China with a name so difficult to pronounce she had to record it and play it back over and over to learn it. But in class the girl rarely made a sound.

She often stood alone on the playground, too, Schlepp noticed. She asked some other girls in the class to help. Slowly, the quiet girl became part of the group.

As she got more comfortable, Schlepp got a sense of her academic gifts.

“Her math was out of this world,” Schlepp said. “What’s so great about numbers it doesn’t require a lot of translation.”

But learning English came slowly. She struggled daily to connect English words to their meanings.

Then, finally, a breakthrough.

She was working on a group project when her teammates excitedly called Schlepp over. As they were writing, they noticed the quiet girl understood enough to re-copy an entire sentence into Chinese, and it was one of her classmates who recognized and celebrated that as a big step.

“I still feel that moment,” Schlepp said. “You have surge of pride. I’m so proud of all of my students because there is so much acceptance and so much love and embracing one another.”

The quiet girl’s family later moved and she transferred to another school. But on her last day, her father came to class to say thank you. The girl handed out handmade paper gifts to all of her classmates.

It’s little successes, small breakthroughs, that build up into the progress that eventually gets kids where they need to be, Schlepp said.

“Once you get into a groove, they grow,” Schlepp said. “That’s great, but when you see them grow you have to move them again. If they are not moving ahead, you have to get them growing again.”

Powered by Typeform

Thanks to LUNA for providing the translation for this series.

Después de caer a una F, ensayo y error ayudan a Nora a dar un rebote

Las calificaciones de los exámenes se desplazaron y la inmigración creció, una ocurrencia cada vez más común en Indianapolis

Pequeños juguetes y plastilina. Legos y plasticina.

Póngalos en los dedos temblorosos de un niño de 5 años que no habla inglés. El simplemente amoldar plastilina o amontonar cubos por solo unos cuantos minutos podría calmar la tormenta de símbolos y sonidos desconocidos?

Esa es la idea, y la maestra Shawn Schlepp de la escuela primaria Nora desesperantemente quería intentarlo.

En el 2013, un aumento del número de estudiantes de Nora que necesitaban aprender a hablar inglés, dejó a la escuela luchando por encontrar soluciones ya que sus calificaciones habían caído hasta la F justo después de haber tenido A por 5 años consecutivos.

Una F era molestamente desconocido y angustioso.

Schlepp y dos colegas pasaron un día fuera de su fin de semana para lanzar “estaciones creativas.” Su petición comparativamente modesta por $ 1,500, podría abastecerse ocho aulas con Tinker Toys, Legos, Play-Doh y más.

La mayoría de los otros cinco grupos pidieron más de $7,000 dólares en premios para las ideas educativas más innovadoras en esta primero-de-su-clase competencia en Indianápolis. El evento fue patrocinado por Teach Plus, una organización que tiene como objetivo ayudar a los maestros involucrarse en la política educativa y la promoción.

A pesar de que Schlepp habló del plan de esperanza a los jueces – seis líderes empresariales y sin fines de lucro – su voz tembló con decepción cuando habló del futuro de Nora.

Sus días como una escuela de primera categoría se sentían muy lejanos.

“Hemos recibido una gran F, a pesar de que todos nuestros maestros están trabajando muy duro”, dijo con tristeza. “Nunca vamos a ser una escuela de A”.

El tono no funcionó.

El comité dio $6,000 dólares para financiar un terreno de juego para poner en marcha una liga poesía-slam en toda la ciudad y $1,000 para impulsar una cafetería dirigida por estudiantes de una escuela privilegiada.

Las estaciones creativas de Nora nunca ocurrieron.

La historia de Nora es cada vez más común en Indianápolis: Las escuelas con un historial de éxito, incluso aquellas que hacen bien con pequeños grupos de estudiantes del idioma, pueden encontrarse rápidamente abrumados por la inmigración rápido-creciente.

En el transcurso de un año o dos, escuelas como Nora pueden encontrarse con un enfoque totalmente nuevo y desafiante a medida que descubren su nuevo trabajo No. 1, enseñar a aquellos que no saben hablar inglés el idioma Ingles.

Una escuela con calificación A cae a calificación F

Durante años, Nora había hecho bien con un grupo manejable de hispanohablantes, que suman alrededor de un tercio de sus estudiantes. Schlepp obtuvo una certificación secundaria en español y utiliza sus conocimientos para construir confianza con sus estudiantes que aún tenían que aprender inglés.

Para ella y el resto de la escuela del Municipio de Washington, las cosas funcionaron bien. Pero para cuando Schlepp situó ante los jueces, el porcentaje de estudiantes de idiomas, retumbó primero en el 42 por ciento, y luego a 46 por ciento y luego a más de la mitad de la escuela. El llevar el mando de turno, en parte, fue el reasentamiento de cambiarse a unos apartamentos cercanos de refugiados de Birmania que hablaban diferentes dialectos de un idioma totalmente desconocido.

Los maestros buscaban nuevas ideas.

En la clase de Schlepp, por ejemplo, ya no funcionaba el simplemente tomar a los aprendices del idioma para lecciones especiales durante la clase de Ingles. Casi todos ellos necesitaban instrucciones adaptadas.

Eso significaba que con frecuencia tenía que romper la clase en grupos pequeños para adaptarse mejor a sus niveles de habilidad y necesidades lingüísticas. Pero requería mucha más planificación de lecciones. Necesitaba el tipo de tareas de aprendizaje, adaptadas al nivel de lenguaje correcto a veces para cinco o seis grupos de estudiantes.

“Fue muy abrumador”, dijo. “No había suficientes horas en el día.”
Pero las calificaciones seguían cayendo – durante cuatro años consecutivos. En el 2007, el 69 por ciento de los estudiantes de Nora, pasó el ISTEP. Para el año 2011, se había reducido al 54 por ciento. El grado de la escuela cayó de una A a una C, y luego a una F.

No parecía justo, dijo Schlepp.

“Si enseñas en Nora sólo tienes un verdadero amor por tus hijos y por lo que haces”, dijo Schlepp. “Usted cree que cualquiera puede hacerlo y luchar por ellos. Es difícil verlos dándoles expectativas en estas pruebas que no se desarrollan para los estudiantes que han estado en los Estados Unidos por poco más de un año”.

Una vez que se nos quitó el shock de haber calificados con una F, se hicieron muchos cambios.

El distrito, por ejemplo, contrató a más maestros con credenciales de aprendizaje de idiomas para apoyar a los maestros. La escuela cuenta ahora con un equipo de ocho especialistas, casi el doble que hace tres años.

Trabajan tanto en los salones, ayudando a pequeños grupos de estudiantes, como empujando a los que necesitan más ayuda con tutoría adicional. Estos especialistas también han ayudado a capacitar a los maestros con técnicas que ayudan a los estudiantes del idioma inglés.

Los maestros se sienten que están dando vuelta en la esquina.

Nora ha visto a tres años de aumento de los resultados de las pruebas, y su grado aumentó a una D y después, el año pasado, a un C. Alrededor del 58 por ciento de los estudiantes pasaron el ISTEP. Pero Nora todavía tiene mucho camino por recorrer: El promedio del año pasado para pasar fue del 74 por ciento.

Tantas preguntas

Schlepp sabe algo sobre encontrarse en un lugar desconocido. Su padre estaba en la Armada y la familia se mudó 22 veces mientras ella estaba creciendo.

Después de ocho años, ella ha conocido la antigua Nora, experimentó la transición desgarradora y ahora es parte del equipo que espera recuperar su reputación académica de alta calidad. Pero es un reto diario para adaptar su enseñanza a muchas de las necesidades de sus estudiantes.

Por ejemplo, Oliviea, un estudiante Africano en la clase de Schlepp el año pasado, el cual su idioma nativo es Swahili.

Oliviea quería saberlo todo.

Schlepp usaba la palabra “ganado” y Oliviea inmediatamente quería saber: “Que es ganado?”

Cuando la clase estaba estudiando la Revolución Americana, él no podía avanzar más allá de un hecho que le pareció extraño.

“Él sólo seguía diciendo:” No entiendo por qué se usaban pelucas? ‘”, Dijo Schlepp. “Sabes qué? Es una buena pregunta”.

Ese afán debe ser celebrado y nutrido, pero Schlepp tenía toda una clase para enseñar. Aun así, si ella lo desanimaba, Oliviea solía ponerse de mal humor.

“Sus habilidades de afrontamiento era de que él se enojaba y se cerraba,” ella dijo.

Schlepp lo llevaba aparte. Cálmate, le decía, y le contestaba sus preguntas por completo. Sus respuestas talvez cubrían otras preguntas que él tenía en su mente.

Ayudó, pero Schlepp pronto se dio cuenta que “tiempo de espera” funcionó para los dos. Oliviea reaccionaba mejor cuando ella actuaba con calma, escuchaba con atención a sus preguntas y contestaba con una voz más sutil.

Ayudó, hacia menos berrinches. Pero aun así, ella se preocupaba por el para cuando pasara a secundaria.

Recientemente Oliviea regresó a Nora. Y le dejó claro a Schlepp que estaba obteniendo respuesta a sus preguntas. Es gratificante cuando una estrategia funciona, dijo Schlepp. Pero eso solo viene después de un ensayo, error, falla, nuevas idea y mayor esfuerzo.

Incluso cuando no está en el trabajo, haciendo ejercicio saliendo a correr por su barrio, es difícil mantener la mente lejos de su clase.

“Cuando corro pienso en lo que funcionó y lo que no”, dijo. “Y me pregunto. ‘¿Por qué no están aprendiendo?’ ”

La chica callada

Hacer demasiadas preguntas podría haber sido la lucha de Oliviea, pero una preocupación aún mayor son los estudiantes de inglés que hacen muy pocas.

Eso es algo que Schlepp está al pendiente: El choque cultural para sus estudiantes inmigrantes puede ser discordante, pero también puede pasar desapercibido fácilmente.

El año pasado, Schlepp tenía una estudiante que se mudó desde China, con un nombre tan difícil de pronunciar que tuvo que grabarlo y reproducirlo una y otra vez para aprendérselo. Pero en la clase la niña rara vez hizo un sonido.

A menudo se quedaba sola en el patio, también, Schlepp notó. Ella les pidió ayuda a otras chicas de la clase. Poco a poco, la chica callada pasó a formar parte del grupo.

Como se sintió más cómoda, Schlepp percibió sus dones académicos.

“Sus matemáticas no era de este mundo”, dijo Schlepp. “¿Qué hay de bueno en los números? Que no requieren una gran cantidad de traducción.”

Pero aprender inglés llegó lentamente. Luchó diariamente para conectar palabras en inglés con sus significados.

Entonces, finalmente, un gran avance.

Estaba trabajando en un proyecto en grupo cuando sus compañeros de grupo llamaron con entusiasmo a Schlepp. Mientras que estaba escribiendo, notaron que la chica callada entendió lo suficiente para copear una frase completa en Chino, y fue alguien de sus compañeros quien se dio cuenta y lo celebró como un gran paso.

“Aun siento ese momento,” dijo Schlepp. “Se siente una oleada de orgullo. Estoy tan orgullosa de todos mis estudiantes porque hay tanta aceptación y tanto cariño y se apoya el uno al otro.”

La familia de la chica callada se mudó y fue transferida a otra escuela. Pero en su último día, su padre vino a la clase para agradecerle. La chica les dio regalos de papel hechos a mano a todos sus estudiantes.

Son los pequeños éxitos; pequeños avances, los que construyen un progreso que eventualmente hace que los estudiantes estén donde deben de estar, dijo Schlepp.

“Una vez que le agarras el hilo, ellos crecen. Y eso es bueno, pero cuando los ves crecer tienes que motivarlos nuevamente. Si no están avanzando tienes que hacer que crezcan una vez más.”

Frequently asked

There are lots of ways schools teach English learners. Here’s how it works.

PHOTO: Andy Cross/The Denver Post
Lindsey Erisman works with 6-year-old students in an English Language Acquisition class at Denver's Cole Arts & Science Academy.

School district officials in Westminster this year signed an agreement with federal officials to change how they educate students who are learning English as a second language.

Similar agreements have also shaped how districts in Denver, Aurora, Adams 14, and Adams 12 educate their English language learner students. But many people, including parents and district insiders, may still have questions about the various complicated programs and requirements.

Although many of the language-education agreements are years old, most of the issues haven’t been resolved. In Adams 14, for instance, parents and advocates have protested a district decision to stop biliteracy programming, and have questioned the district’s compliance with its agreement to better serve English learners. District officials have pointed out that their obligation is teaching students English, not making them bilingual.

Now at least one charter school, KIPP, is looking to fill in that programming gap. Many other states have had a number of biliteracy and other bilingual programs at various schools for years, but Colorado has only more recently started to follow those trends.

So what’s the difference between the various language programs and services? And what is required by law and what isn’t? The following questions and answers might help clarify some of those questions as you follow the news around these issues.

Which students are designated as English language learners? Do parents get to decide, or do schools decide?

Federal guidance requires school districts have some way to identify English learners. Most commonly, districts survey all parents at school registration about their home language and the student’s first language. If that survey finds there might be an influence of another language at home, the student must be assessed to determine fluency in English. While the district has to identify all students who aren’t fluent in English as language learners, parents in Colorado can choose to waive the federally required services for their children. If so, the district doesn’t have to provide special services, but would still be required to monitor that the student is making progress toward acquiring English.

What educational rights do English language learners have?

English language learners have specific rights under the Lau v. Nichols Supreme Court case from 1974 and the subsequent Castañeda standards released in 1981. State laws also outline some requirements for school districts. Specifically, school districts must provide programs for all identified language learners to give them the opportunity to learn English and to access a comprehensive curriculum. The government does not state what that program should be, but provides some standards requiring that any program is theoretically sound and has a research base to support it. The program has to have qualified teachers, and a way to demonstrate that students are making progress in learning English and their academic content. While the civil rights officials consider many details to verify compliance, simply put, school districts have the legal obligation to identify students, serve them in a sound program, and monitor their progress.

What is the difference between bilingual education and “ELL services?”

Bilingual education (which is the program that has the most support for efficacy from the research community) offers students opportunities to learn in their native language while they are learning English. Bilingual programs can vary from short-term, or early-exit programs, to more longer-term developmental programs.

English language learner services do not need to provide opportunities for students to learn in the native language. Most commonly these services only offer English language development classes (generally 45 minutes per day). All other content instruction is offered only in English. ELL services are not bilingual.

What is English language development?

English language development must be a part of any program or model a district or school adopts. It is the class time when students are taught the English language. The government wants to see that English learners are given a dedicated time to learn English, when they are not competing with native English speakers. That means, often, English language development is offered as a time when students are pulled out of class to practice English, or as a special elective period students must take without their English-speaking peers.

The structure of this time period, who has access to it, or who teaches it, are areas commonly cited as problems by the federal Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights.

Do students who are identified as English language learners retain that designation forever? What does it mean to be an “exited ELL?”

They’re not supposed to. Students who are English learners should be tested at least once a year to determine their English proficiency. When a student reaches a high enough level, school staff must determine if the student is now fluent in English. If so, the student becomes an “exited ELL.” The law requires districts to monitor for two years students who have exited and are no longer receiving services. There are, however, students who do not reach English fluency before graduating or leaving school.

What is the difference between being bilingual and being biliterate?

Bilingual generally refers to oral language in that bilingual people can understand and speak two languages but may not be able to read and write in those languages. Biliterate refers to being able to understand, speak, read, and write in two languages. Many people are bilingual but not biliterate. Biliteracy is considered to be a higher form of bilingualism.

What is the difference between dual language and biliteracy models?

Dual language and biliteracy models share many common components. Both models usually have biliteracy as their end goal for students. Dual language models may be “one-way” or “two-way.” One-way programs generally serve students who are designated as English language learners (also sometimes called emerging bilinguals). Two-way dual language programs include students who are native English speakers. The only major difference is that biliteracy models focus on using two languages in the language arts or literacy classes (reading and writing in two languages) whereas dual language focuses on using two languages across the entire school day’s curriculum.

What is an immersion model?

Immersion models traditionally are thought of as referring to programs primarily intended for students from the dominant language population to learn a second language. This is different from programs meant to teach English.

While native English students can choose whether or not to learn a second language, students who are English language learners do not have a choice in learning English.

What is sheltered instruction?

This type of instruction takes place in non-dual language schools, during regular content classes (such as math or science), and it’s one way schools try to make the content understandable to students who aren’t yet fluent in English.

This is especially common in schools where English learners speak a variety of languages. Crawford Elementary in Aurora, for instance, has had up to 35 different languages represented among its approximately 560 students. If there aren’t enough students who speak a common first language and also a teacher who speaks the same language as those students, then schools must teach through English, while making the English as accessible as possible.

In practice, this means an English-speaking teacher would use sheltered instruction techniques to help all children understand the lessons such as, physical props, a focus on building vocabulary, and sentence stems.

Denver designates schools as TNLI schools. What does that mean?

Denver created the TNLI label in 1999 to set the district apart from other bilingual program models. TNLI stands for Transitional Native Language Instruction. The Denver TNLI program is a transitional bilingual education program model with a label created just for Denver. It’s a model where instruction in Spanish is used to help students learn while they’re acquiring English, but still has a goal of making students fluent in English as soon as possible, at which point students move into mainstream English classrooms.

Is one of these models best suited for English learners?

Among researchers, it is commonly accepted that dual language or biliteracy models are the most effective to put English learners on par with their native speaking peers, in the long run.

Why do teachers have to be trained specifically to teach this population of students? What are teachers learning?

Educators and researchers say that teachers need to learn the differences and similarities between learning in one language and learning bilingually. Teachers need to learn about literacy methodology and how teaching literacy in Spanish (for example) is the same and different as teaching literacy in English. They have to learn how to teach English language development to students who are beginning to learn English (it is different than just teaching in English). These trainings also help teachers learn about cultural similarities and differences and about sources of culture conflict. Teachers need to be able to teach children English; how to use English to learn; and how the English language works. In bilingual settings teachers need to learn those three things for two languages. In short, the training needed to be a bilingual teacher is quite different. Colorado will soon require some of this training for all teachers.

What are the challenges districts have in offering these different programs? How do schools decide which type of model to offer?

The demographics of a district’s student population, and district politics play a large part in helping a district decide what model or program to use. Resources can also be a factor in deciding how to structure services or what programs to offer. In Adams 14, when the district leadership decided to pause the roll out of a biliteracy program, the district cited a lack of qualified bilingual teachers, among other things.

In Westminster, the school district’s unique competency-based approach, which removes grade levels and seeks to personalize instruction, was cited as a reason why the district had structured its English language development the way it had before the investigation by the Office for Civil Rights sought to change it.

Does Colorado provide guidance or oversight for how districts are doing this work?

The Colorado Department of Education offers some guidance for districts, but oversight of the districts’ compliance with what is required is limited. In practice, when parents suspect their children aren’t educated well, they have filed complaints with the federal government. In Denver, the complaints went through the Department of Justice. Investigations of most other metro-area districts have been conducted by the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights.

choice words

Colorado’s Spanish spelling bee is growing as more students, from different backgrounds, take on the challenge

File photo from 2012 National Spanish Spelling Bee. (Courtesy of National Spanish Spelling Bee)

Almost 50 Colorado students are getting ready to compete this weekend in a spelling bee where they’ll be spelling words in Spanish.

In addition to breaking down words letter-by-letter, in Spanish, students must include special marks, such as accents or capital letters, in the right places.

“One of the common misconceptions is that it is easier to spell in Spanish than it is in English, but it absolutely is not,” said Jorge Garcia, executive director for the Colorado Association for Bilingual Education, the organization hosting the state spelling bee. “They don’t just memorize words. Cognitively, it’s a good exercise for them.”

Most students who participate are native Spanish speakers, but a handful of students are native English speakers who learn Spanish as a second language. Garcia said two years ago, a second-grade girl whose first language was English placed second in the state bee.

“All she did to prepare was read,” Garcia said. “She was just a voracious reader.”

2018 Colorado Spanish Spelling Bee
    When: Starts at 9 a.m. Sat. April 7
    Where: Kepner Legacy Middle School
    911 S. Hazel Court, Denver

    Free for the public to watch

Colorado’s Spanish Spelling Bee is in its third year — and is growing. This Saturday’s competition will be held at a school in Denver, but will include students from 14 schools across the state, including from as far away as Telluride.

“Every year it has been growing,” Garcia said. The first year the state competition included about 34 students from nine or ten schools, he said.

Students from second through eighth grade can participate. The students first participate in a spelling bee at their school to earn a spot at the state competition.

Three top spellers get to go to the National Spanish Spelling Bee in San Antonio.

David Briseño, founder and the coordinator of the National Spanish Spelling Bee, said this year’s national competition is drawing students from about 13 states. Next year, organizers are working to host the national competition in Colorado.

“If we do that, we want to get even more of our kids involved,” said Garcia.

2017 winners of Colorado Spanish Spelling Bee. (Photo provided by Colorado Association for Bilingual Education)

Colorado students were among the first to participate in the national spelling bee when it started in 2011, back before the state competition existed.

David Smith, a librarian at Escuela Bilingue Pioneer in Lafayette, has held a spelling bee for students at the dual language school since he got the job about five years ago.

“Every school should be involved,” Smith said. “The whole idea of a spelling bee is it gets kids interested in spelling, and it just gets them more aware about words and vocabulary. For bilingual students, it’s important to study. There’s a lot of things that are similar in the languages, but it also makes them very aware of the differences so they can be better writers.”

At Escuela Bilingue Pioneer, students have library time as one of their specials (like art and physical education), twice a week. Smith said he has an ability to help students practice spelling and get excited to participate in the competition during that time.

Every second- through fifth-grade student first takes a written spelling test to qualify for the school’s spelling bee. Smith also shares the results of the spelling test with student’s teachers in case it can be used as an extra data point showing how students are learning or give them ideas about what parts of language students might need extra help on.

Smith said that when other educators reach out to him for advice about starting their own spelling bee at their schools, he suggests starting small.

Many of the other participating schools, not all of which have bilingual programs, have students participate in the spelling bee on a volunteer basis.

Smith said many students get excited once they hear about the contest and teachers can encourage more of them to practice and sign up.

Educators say the excitement, and contests, grow as students who get to the spelling bee and don’t win vow to practice more and return the next year.

“If you’re there and you see it,” Garcia said, “it’s really fun.”

Schools participating in 2018:

  • Escuela Bilingue Pioneer
  • Angevine Middle School
  • Ashley Elementary
  • Academia Ana Marie Sandoval
  • Columbine Elementary
  • Valdez Elementary
  • Telluride Intermediate
  • University Hill Elementary
  • Foster Elementary
  • Telluride Middle School
  • Global Village Academy
  • Gust Elementary School
  • Godsman Elementary School
  • Denver Language School