Lost in Translation

Charter innovations show promising results for teaching language

PHOTO: Kelly Wilkinson / The Star
Instructional aid Maricela Berrospe, right, works with Kindergartners at Enlace Academy. Much of the instruction at the school takes place in small groups.

Mariama Carson’s dream is to open a charter school unlike any other in the state focused on learning two languages at once.

If she gets the go-ahead, students from Kindergarten to eighth grade will exclusively speak Spanish half the day and English the other half. Teachers will drill lessons in grammar, math and culture in both languages with the goal that they graduate fully bilingual.

As the number of English language learners in Indianapolis charter schools swells — it could reach a quarter of charter school enrollment by 2020 — some schools are becoming beacons for a fast-growing Latino population.

Three charter schools in particular are trying new approaches.

Carson’s plan for the Global Preparatory Academy, if approved, is primarily aimed at the explosion of immigrants moving to the city’s Northwest side in Lafayette Square. Enlace Academy, also on the Northwest side, makes broad use of new technology while mostly serving English language learners. And Christel House Academy South has added more one-on-one teaching as its enrollment of language learners has grown.

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The freedom to innovate is supposed to be what sets apart charter schools, which are free and publicly funded, but privately managed outside of school district control.

Freedom doesn’t always equate to success. For example, four low-scoring Indianapolis charter schools will close this summer.

But new research might suggest some charter schools’ innovations are helping English language learners succeed.

A national study released last month found Indianapolis charter schools out-performed the city’s traditional public schools for English language learners in both reading and math. Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes, or CREDO, analyzed data from 2006 to 2011 for the study.

The comparison used a measurement called “additional days of learning,” and it found Indianapolis charter school students learning English as a new language gained an additional 65 days of learning, or about one-third of the school year, more than similar students at Indianapolis Public Schools.

Others are skeptical.

Jonathan Plucker, a University of Connecticut education psychology professor and former director of Indiana University’s Center for Evaluation and Education Policy, said comparing an average of large groups — such as the difference between students at charter schools and a public district — might not be the best way to look at the data.

He said he wouldn’t base too much thinking on one study.

“How can we get student growth for all of these students higher and not just look at this one average data point?” Plucker asked.

Rafael Sanchez, a Hispanic community leader and Indianapolis Chamber of Commerce board member, said charter schools, publicly funded vouchers that help families pay private school tuition and other choice options are unfamiliar to many Latinos and other immigrants.

Any school, he said, that wants to appeal to immigrant families need to have the proper “ecosystem” of diversity in teaching and a staff that can relate not just through language but cultural sensitivity.

“There is a wait-and-see approach within the Latino community,” he said about charter schools, even as some, such as Enlace, are making inroads with Hispanic families.

Traditional public schools, such IPS, feel more familiar, Sanchez said.

Using computers to help language learners

Among the restaurants and markets off west 38th Street, in a part of town known as the International Marketplace, is Enlace Academy.

Located on the second floor of Gambold Preparatory, an IPS magnet high school, Enlace has its own approach to helping language learners: the so-called “blended learning” model. It’s a type of personalized, high-tech academics gaining popularity nationally.

This year, more than half the school — 55 percent — are English-language learners.

On a recent day, a Kindergarten class buzzed with chatter as students pecked at keyboards and crowded around tables to collaborate.

Two teachers oversaw 30 students in each classroom. During each day, groups of 10 students split their time three ways: by working together or independently, being lectured by the teacher or hunkered down in front of a computer or iPad.

“What we want to do is create a way for teachers to teach in small groups where they are developing closer knit relationships with their students,” Kevin Kubacki, the school’s founder, said. “Students have more time to speak and interact. And the students are learning at their grade level.”

One student’s program, part of the i-Ready literacy software, appears similar to the 1980s arcade game Frogger. It teaches kids how to say short vowel sounds and blended consonants. A digitized frog croaks and jumps forward with each right answer. Questions get harder when students get right answers and easier when they get them wrong.

Instructors can watch the results in real time and react by changing the way they teach, Kubacki said.

Enlace is too new for an A-to-F grade from the state. But early evidence points to significant academic growth for students who were lagging in reading, math and other skills when they enrolled, Kubacki says.

Kubacki wants students to achieve a year and half of academic growth for each year they are enrolled at Enlace until they have mastered skills equal to their current grade level.

“So far we have seen that,” he said about students’ knowledge catching up to where it should be. “And this year we are on pace for similar growth.”

Individual attention as a strategy

Christel House South, a K-12 campus, is made up of nearly one-quarter of English language learners who have have made big gains on ISTEP and the third grade reading test, IREAD, during the same period as the Stanford study.

Carey Dahncke, chief academic officer for the network, said teachers use a method called “intervention,” giving additional learning time — sometimes during class, after school or during special June classes — to rachet up skills.

That extra time, Dahncke says, can be used to knock down potential roadblocks by explaining a word. Bill, for instance, has many meanings, from a person’s name to what sticks out of a duck’s face.

“So if you just take it for granted that students understand that the same word in English can have multiple meanings — even very, very simple words — if you don’t provide instruction around that, some students will miss that,” he said.

Test scores for English language learners at Christel House were above average during the same years as the CREDO study.

For example in 2011-12, 65 percent of Christel House English-language learners passed both the math and reading portions of the ISTEP exam, according to the Indiana Department of Education. That is nearly nearly 18 percentage points higher than the state average pass rate for language learners, but it’s still behind the 71.5 percent average pass rate of all students that same year.

Last year, 56 percent of Christel House language learners passed both parts of the state exam.

Learning two languages at once

Carson, a former Pike Township principal, has seen Latino students struggle when their families can’t speak English and their teachers can’t speak Spanish. But Global Prep, she said, will “unlock” both worlds.

“This is bigger than a second language,” she said. “It is the kind of instruction students have through a second language. I think that kind of opportunity is what many of my children (at Pike Township) needed but that is not the structure of a traditional, education program.”

Last year, Carson was chosen for The Mind Trust’s two-year Education Entrepreneur Fellowship to give her funds and support to design the school. Her goal is to graduate students that can do more than just speak two languages, but also be able to competently read and write their second languages.

The instruction model is described as “hands-on,” Carson said, and will be designed with help from Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis. Teachers will also receive specialized  training before starting at the school.

Carson wants to open the school in August 2016 with 90 students in Kindergarten and 50 first-graders. Within eight years, the school would expand to eighth grade and have 700 students enrolled.

Ideally, the grade levels would be evenly split between low-income native-English and native-Spanish speakers.

Carson, the wife of Democratic U.S. Rep. André D. Carson for Indiana’s seventh district, presents her application for sponsorship to Mayor Greg Ballard’s charter school office on May 29. A final vote on the charter is set for June 2.

If approved, Global Prep would would join three other language immersion schools in the city, but it would be the only charter school and the only one serving the city’s West side.

“For me, this is about the love of language and the love of teaching,” Carson said. “And the two have to come together.”

Eric Weddle is an education reporter with WFYI Public Media. Email him at eweddle@wfyi.org.

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Language barriers

Aurora school district expands translation and interpretation in response to parent demands

Patricia Shaw, an interpreter for Aurora Public Schools, left, shows Indonesia Maye how to use the transmitters during a back-to-school event at Aurora West College Preparatory Academy on August 6. Maye was hired by the district to interpret to Somali students and their families at the event. (Photo by RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post)

Hsa Mlu, a mother of four children, recently started receiving communications from her sons’ Aurora schools in her native Southeast Asian language, Karen.

“I am so excited,” Mlu, who has two sons in Aurora schools, said through an interpreter. “I am sure it’s going to be better for parents.”

In the past Mlu said that when she received communications in English from her children’s schools, she would rush it over to a friend’s house — even in the rain or snow — to ask for help.

“I didn’t understand what I had to do or what it was for,” Mlu said.

Mlu is one of the parent leaders who has been working with the nonprofit organization RISE Colorado for more than a year to ask Aurora Public Schools to improve language services. Parents, like Mlu, have shared stories with the district and the school board, about how their language barriers have prevented them from being more involved in their children’s education. Teachers also said it was a problem for them.

Top 10 languages in APS by number of parents who have listed it as a preference for communication

  • English, 26,617
  • Spanish, 11,316
  • Amharic, 386
  • Nepali, 268
  • Somali, 241
  • Burmese, 205
  • Vietnamese, 174
  • Arabic, 171
  • Karen, 157
  • French, 119

Source: Aurora Public Schools

In response, the district last year started working on translating some documents, and training secretaries and school staff to use the district’s system to send out automated calls in various languages. Board members responded by passing a resolution to prohibit educators from relying on children to translate official or formal discussions with parents. And this summer, the district included $200,000 in its 2018-19 budget to centralize language services under the communications office.

“Our families are feeling really excited that their voices were heard,” said RISE Colorado’s co-founder and CEO Veronica Crespin-Palmer.

Now Aurora educators, such as principals and teachers, can use a simplified, common form online to ask the district for help with translations or interpretations for their students’ families.

It’s a change from years past when language help was scattered among various district departments with each department available for only particular purposes. It was a process educators and families said wasn’t easy to understand.

Having all of the district’s expertise in one office now should help in coordinating and filling language requests, said Patti Moon, the district’s chief communication officer.

District officials expect that the simplified process will increase demand for translation or interpretation services this school year, and so the district is preparing to expand its abilities with the allocated money.

In part, that means adding services in more languages. Right now, Aurora has in-house language services for Spanish, but in a district where families have listed 143 different languages as their preferred language, there’s a need for more.

In one step to make more interpreters available, the district has been certifying its own bilingual staff in translation, so they can be available after work to pick up assignments translating or interpreting for school or district events. Currently, district officials say there are more than 120 district-approved interpreters, and officials want to recruit more. District interpreters and other staff can provide interpretation in 14 languages.

The district also has a partnership with interpreters-in-training from the Community College of Aurora.

Aurora also plans to use some of the money to improve quality by providing professional training to language services staff.

But the parents’ work will continue, said the mother, Mlu. Parents requested to continue monthly meetings with the district’s language staff to provide feedback about how the schools are rolling out the changes. The district agreed to continue the collaboration.

In addition to streamlining its internal communications, the district is providing one service designed for parents and the community: the introduction of language identification cards.

RISE parents designed the business-size cards that the district printed in the top 10 languages, with a blank space for people to fill in their name to show school attendants what language they speak. Accompanying one-sheet forms include translations of common requests such as excusing a child from school, requesting a meeting with a teacher, or asking for an interpreter. (See a copy of both below)

The cards will be made available in schools for parents to use and have an easier time communicating simple requests, or asking for an interpreter.

Crespin-Palmer said she hopes the cards, the process, and the changes the district is making can be a model for other districts.

Mlu said she appreciates the significant changes she’s seen so far. But, she said, she’s still wants the district to know she’s watching.

“We are parent leaders, and we keep watching the for the interpretation and translation to improve,” she said. “We’re working toward it too.”





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In Aurora, a math teacher led the way to offer students a seal of biliteracy

Picture of recipients of the seal of biliteracy at their 2018 graduation from Aurora Central High School. (Photo courtesy of Aurora Public Schools)

Aurora math teacher Susan Holloway was fired up when Colorado last year created a new recognition for multilingual students.

But few new districts have taken on the work. Aurora isn’t yet offering the new seal of biliteracy. So Holloway took it upon herself to help 15 seniors at her school win the recognition.

The point was to “acknowledge those scholars” at Aurora Central High School, Holloway said. “We knew we had them, we just had to find them.”

Officials from three districts that pioneered the work to recognize biliteracy before the state passed the law touted one of the big benefits of a seal of biliteracy was its potential to transform a perception of students who speak English as a second language. Rather than being seen as deficient or lagging, they can be recognized for possessing an additional asset — and in becoming literate in English and another language, they actually have more to offer.

Districts that have been doing the work the longest, in Denver, Adams 14 and Eagle, worked to create pathways to prepare students from a young age to reach a high level of fluency in two languages. Holloway said she knows that even if her school lacks those pathways, it had more than 15 students who are biliterate.

By the numbers: 2018 graduates with seal of biliteracy:
  • Aurora, 15
  • Denver, 893
  • Eagle, 36 (another 178 fifth and eighth graders earned a district biliteracy certificate)
  • Adams 14, 68

But for last school year she set out to find those who were closest to already meeting the requirements of the seal.

Holloway set up criteria and took a day off from class to dig through student data among those students who were high performing in reading and writing. One of the requirements to earn the seal as an addition to the high school diploma is demonstration of proficiency in English.

Holloway worked with an assistant principal and a district administrator to find a test for literacy and fluency in Spanish, which the school was able to purchase. Every one of the students who took the Spanish test passed it.

“I was really fired up to make it happen,” said Holloway. “It just took someone who kind of had the big picture of what was required. I just pushed on until it happened.”

As a board member for the Colorado Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages, Holloway had also helped push for the seal of biliteracy through the Legislature.

Holloway’s district, Aurora Public Schools, is one of the most diverse in the state, serving students with a background in more than 160 languages.

A district official who helped Holloway’s work at Aurora Central did not respond to requests for comment, but a spokesman said in writing that it was too soon to talk about district level plans.

“Changing direction — that just takes a while,” Holloway said. “The next step for all schools would be to make sure their language departments are whole and strong. For people who are already native speakers, the counselors need to be educated to say you should take that class. We have to have the systems in place.”

For now Holloway said all she can do in Aurora is to continue providing information to students and to other educators who might be interested.

Elsewhere, just a handful of other educators are moving ahead. Officials in the Greeley-Evans school district are in the early stages of plans to offer the seal, but Brian Lemos, the director of instruction and English language development talked about why his district is interested, and how he hoped they might be able to start.

“We have multiple students that are bilingual and we really feel that that’s an asset, so we need to be able to honor that asset,” Lemos said.

Lemos said that changes in district leadership and other priorities have caused delays, but he’s expecting arrangements will start coming together more this year.

“Now we’re really thinking about what does it mean and how do we start getting students on that track,” Lemos said. He is analyzing which students are taking what classes to see how many could already meet the minimum requirements.

If Greeley does move forward, Lemos also wants to make sure students and families understand early on the requirements and the benefits of pursuing the credential.

In Eagle County Schools, one of the three districts that began offering the seal in 2015, officials say they are hearing anecdotally that students who have already earned the seal have seen benefits.

“Students have said that the seal has been a huge part of helping them to stand out in applications and getting interviews (for many different things),” said Jessica Martinez, the district’s Director of Multilingual Education. “We have had students comment that they thought that having the seal was one of the biggest reasons they got a job, and that employers are very interested in the seal when they interview.”

Some of the other benefits have been slow to materialize. Officials had hoped colleges might recognize the seal to help place students higher in language courses, or that students might be able to use it to fulfill language requirements.

“Our understanding is that there are so few districts who are using this so far, that it hasn’t yet gained the attention of colleges yet,” said a spokeswoman for the Colorado Department of Higher Education.

Holloway’s hopes for her students are simpler.

“I hope, No. 1, that it allows them to know just how good they are, she said. “This is above the high school level. It’s an advanced level of proficiency. I hope it invites them to participate in our world and I hope it helps to get them a job and that they take that whole understanding of their global citizenship with them.”