Lost in Translation

IPS struggles to bridge the gap with language learners and their families

PHOTO: Matt Detrich / Indianapolis Star
Teacher Eddie Rangel at IPS Key Learning Community School.

Eddie Rangel wasn’t about to let 6-year-old Maite duck her real name, although she cowered with embarrassment at his Mexican pronunciation of her name as “My-tay.”

The teacher, who is half Mexican, understood that Maite wanted to Americanize her name to fit in with her peers, but he wouldn’t let up.

Then, suddenly, Maite turned the question back on him: Could she call him by his real name? Mr. “Ron-hel?”

The question forever changed Rangel’s Key Learning Community classroom: All of his students now use the Mexican pronunciation of his name, he’s made his curriculum more culturally sensitive and he’s making a better effort to communicate with his students’ Spanish-speaking parents.

Now, Indianapolis Public Schools is embarking on its own rethinking of the way it assists students who are still learning English. The district plans to train educators to use better strategies in the classroom to help English learners and to improve communication with and support for its growing population of immigrant families. Efforts are also underway to increase the diversity of IPS’ teaching staff.

Jessica Feeser, IPS’ new director of education for English language learners, said the changes are needed to reverse a troubling trend: The students are falling behind their peers.

Data source: Indiana Department of Education
Credits: Sarah Glen/Chalkbeat

Just 43 percent of the district’s English learners passed ISTEP last year — 10 percentage points behind their peers. The graduation rate for English language learners last year was more than 7 percentage points worse than the district’s 71 percent average. And 15 of the 25 IPS schools with the largest gains in enrollment of English learners since 2006 earned a grade of C or lower from the state last year.

“We can’t wait until tomorrow or the next day to make things happen,” Feeser said. “They’re working twice as hard. That means as teachers, we need to work twice as hard.”

But the sharp growth of English language learners at IPS — enrollment has nearly tripled since 2001 to almost 5,000 students this year — has led to challenges that district officials say are hard to overcome.

PHOTO: Tricia Frye / IPS
This map shows the explosive growth over time of Hispanic students in IPS schools. IPS’s Hispanic population has grown by more than 17 times what it was 23 years ago. Source: Tricia Frye / IPS


Few teachers have the kinds of ethnic connections with students that Rangel does, and parents say the district’s communication with non-English-speaking parents is poor. And until now, only English as a new language teachers have explicit training and charge to serve students who are learning English.

Better training for better teaching

That will soon change, Feeser said, and many more teachers will know how to tailor their instruction for students who are learning English.

“Coloring worksheets at the high school level are not going to get our children prepared for college and careers,” Feeser said.

There’s nothing mean-spirited about the way things have worked at IPS, Feeser said. But helping kids learn English was seen as somebody else’s responsibility. Teachers didn’t feel they had the tools to meet the students’ needs.

This summer, IPS will launch its first district-wide effort to train general education teachers in strategies to specifically reach English learners. It’s starting with two high schools — Northwest and George Washington — where teachers will learn about “sheltered” instruction, in which they cover all of the same Indiana standards but use different lessons for language learners. For example, a sheltered lesson on comparing and contrasting text might use a city bus route instead of Shakespeare.


Javier Barrera, a 2003 Northwest High School graduate and advocate for undocumented youth who came to the U.S. as a teen from Mexico, said the new techniques are desperately needed.

“They assumed that because we were immigrant students and we were not English speakers that it wasn’t even worth it to invest time and resources into us,” Barrera said of his experience in IPS.

Parents say communication is lacking

When Rangel realized the key to helping Logan, a boy learning English, succeed in his class was a frank conversation with his mother, he was determined that their language barrier not hold them back.

“He’s got a bright future,” said Rangel, a Teach Plus fellow who came to IPS through Teach For America. “He’s getting a B and he’s an A student.”

Slowly, they began to work together to keep track of Logan’s needs despite his limited Spanish and her limited English. Recently, she came in for a parent-teacher conference without a translator.

“I had my broken Spanish, and she had her broken English, and we met in the middle,” Rangel said. “It was the truest form of a dialogue, and we were helping each other.”

But some parents say that level of outreach is rare in IPS.

School 88 parent Evelyn Barreuto, a Spanish speaker, said she has struggled to track the progress of her three children — Isaac, Benjamin and Belen. Through an interpreter, she said she is concerned about the lack of resources for Spanish-speaking parents.

Barreuto said there’s little to no translation help. She mainly relies on her children, who are fluent in English, or an interpreter from Stand for Children, a group that advocates for change in IPS, to keep her informed.

“I can understand a little English, not a lot, I know, but I have never let that stop me from communicating with teachers and the principal,” Barreuto said.

School board President Diane Arnold said the district needs to do better.

“You can’t have people be part of the process if they can’t fully participate,” Arnold said.

Feeser said she wants to increase efforts to connect with IPS’s non-English speaking community.

In January she invited English language teachers, translators, community centers, faith-based groups, charter schools, immigration attorneys and local businesses together with the goal of trying to connect IPS families to resources they might not have realized existed.

“I see our schools as the heart and soul of the community,” Feeser said. “If students are in an emotionally happy place — they’ve got their basic health care needs met, they’ve got full bellies and a warm place to sleep — we know they’re going to come back to school and be ready to learn.”

Trying to recruit more diverse educators

The lack of diversity in the district’s workforce has become more glaring as its student population changes.

More than 23 percent of IPS students are Hispanic, but only about 2 percent of the district’s teachers are, according to the Indiana Department of Education.

Data source: Indiana Department of Education
Credits: Sarah Glen/Chalkbeat

And the district had just a single Latino school administrator — until it laid him off last year.

The decision to lay off Joel Muñoz, an assistant principal at George Washington High School,  did not go over well in the Hispanic community. He had just been a finalist for a statewide leadership award but was let go along with 23 others because of the district’s new strategy for letting new principals pick their own assistants.

“That was a bad situation,” Arnold said. “I think he was a good guy and he seemed to be doing good work.”

After Muñoz left the district — he ended up taking a principal job in Pike Township and did not respond to a request for comment  — IPS said it would embark on a variety of initiatives to increase the diversity of its staff, including hiring a district recruiter.

IPS is not alone in struggling to recruit a diverse teaching staff. Bilingual teachers are in demand across Marion County and beyond, Arnold said, because school districts have recognized that students thrive when they have mentors who share their experiences.

Arnold said IPS has a hard time recruiting those candidates because of its low pay.

“They can pretty much write their ticket to any district,” she said.

The benefits of increasing staff diversity in IPS are clear to Rangel.

A shy Latino boy in his class suddenly spoke up one day after Rangel had his class read “Esperanza Rising,” a novel about a girl struggling to adapt to life in America after she moves from Mexico during the Great Depression.

“He … starts telling us his story about coming to America,” Rangel said, “Hiding from scary men and how his mom had to leave him behind with his grandparents in Mexico, and then he came later. He still has an older brother there.”

This was, Rangel realized, a breakthrough moment.

“He said ‘I knew you’re Mexican, so you’d be OK with me sharing,’” Rangel said. “I think (my students) are less afraid to take risks, and as an adult I realize that those are the things that make or break you.”

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Thanks to LUNA for providing the translation for this series.

IPS (Escuelas Públicas de Indianapolis, por sus siglas en inglés) lucha con problemas para cerrar la brecha entre aprendices de idioma y sus familias

El distrito se está embarcando en esfuerzos para repasar sus servicios para niños que están aprendiendo a hablar Ingles

Eddie Rangel no estaba dispuesto a dejar a Maite, de 6 años de edad, agacharse por su nombre real, aunque se llenaba con vergüenza a la pronunciación mexicana de su nombre, “My-tay.”

El maestro, quien es mitad mexicano, entendió que Maite quería americanizar su nombre para encajar con sus compañeros, pero él no permitiría.

De repente, Maite le regreso la pregunta diciéndole: Puedo llamarlo por su nombre real? Mr. “Ron-hel?”

La pregunta cambió las Claves de Aprendizaje de Comunidad del salón de Rangel: todos sus estudiantes ahora usan la pronunciación mexicana de su nombre, ha cambiado su plan de estudios a ser más sentible culturalmente y está haciendo un mejor esfuerzo para comunicarse con los padres de sus estudiantes que hablan español.

Ahora, las Escuelas Públicas de Indianápolis se están embarcando en su propio replanteamiento de tal forma en que ayuden a los estudiantes que todavía están aprendiendo inglés. El distrito tiene previsto capacitar a los educadores a utilizar mejores estrategias en el aula para ayudar a los estudiantes de inglés y para mejorar la comunicación y el apoyo a su creciente población de las familias inmigrantes. También se está trabajando para aumentar la diversidad del personal docente a IPS.

Jessica Feeser, nueva directora de educación para los estudiantes del idioma Inglés de IPS, dijo que se necesitan los cambios para revertir una tendencia preocupante: Los estudiantes se están quedando atrasado de sus otros compañeros.

El año pasado, solo el 43 por ciento de los estudiantes de inglés del distrito, pasaron el ISTEP – 10 puntos de porcentaje más atrás que sus compañeros. El promedio de graduación de los estudiantes aprendiendo el Ingles fue más de 7 puntos de porcentaje, peor que el promedio de 71% del distrito. Y 15 de las 25 IPS escuelas con la mayor ganancia en inscripciones de los estudiantes que aprenden inglés desde el 2006 obtuvo una calificación de C o menos que el promedio estatal del año pasado.

“No podemos esperar hasta mañana o al día siguiente para hacer que las cosas sucedan”, dijo Feeser. “Están trabajando el doble de duro. Eso significa que como maestros, tenemos que trabajar el doble”.

Pero el fuerte crecimiento de los estudiantes del idioma Inglés a IPS – las inscripciones casi se han triplicado desde el año 2001 a casi 5.000 estudiantes este año – ha llevado a los desafíos que los funcionarios del distrito dicen que son difíciles de superar.

PHOTO: Tricia Frye / IPS
This map shows the explosive growth over time of Hispanic students in IPS schools. IPS’s Hispanic population has grown by more than 17 times what it was 23 years ago. Source: Tricia Frye / IPS

Pocos maestros tienen los tipos de conexiones étnicas con los estudiantes como la que tiene Rangel, y los padres dicen que la comunicación del distrito con los padres que no hablan inglés, es pobre. Y hasta ahora, sólo profesores de Inglés-como-nuevo-idioma tienen una formación explícita y se encargan de atender a los estudiantes que están aprendiendo inglés.

Mejor entrenamiento para mejor enseñanza

Eso cambiará pronto, Feeser dijo, y muchos más maestros sabrán cómo adaptar su instrucción para los estudiantes que están aprendiendo inglés.

“Colorear hojas de trabajo a nivel de preparatoria no va a hacer que nuestros hijos estén preparados para la universidad ni carreras”, dijo Feeser.

No hay nada mal intencional sobre cómo han trabajado cosas en IPS, dijo Feeser. Pero ayudar a los niños a aprender inglés fue visto como la responsabilidad de otra persona. Los maestros se sintieron que no tenían las herramientas para satisfacer las necesidades de los estudiantes.

Este verano, IPS lanzará su primer esfuerzo en todo el distrito para capacitar a maestros de educación general en las estrategias para llegar específicamente a los estudiantes de inglés. Está empezando con dos escuelas secundarias – Northwest y George Washington – donde los maestros aprenderán acerca de la instrucción “protegida”, en el que se cubren todos los mismos estándares de Indiana, pero utilizan diferentes lecciones para estudiantes de idiomas. Por ejemplo, una lección de texto protegida en comparación y contraste, se podría utilizar una ruta de autobús de la ciudad en vez de Shakespeare.

Javier Barrera, un graduado, en el 2003, de la Secundaria Northwest aboga por jóvenes indocumentados que llegaron a los EE.UU. de México como adolescentes, dijo que se necesitan desesperadamente las nuevas técnicas.

“Ellos asumieron que porque éramos estudiantes inmigrantes y que no hablábamos inglés, que no valía la pena invertir tiempo y recursos en nosotros,” dijo Barrera de su experiencia en IPS.

Los padres dicen que hay falta de comunicación

Cuando Rangel se dio cuenta que la clave para ayudar a Logan, un niño aprendiendo inglés, a triunfar en su clase era una franca conversación con su madre, él se determinó a que su barrera de lenguaje no fuera impedimento para detenerlos.

“Tiene un futuro brillante,” dijo Rangel, un compañero de Tech Plus que vino a IPS a través de Tech por América. “Está recibiendo una B y él es un estudiante de A.”

Poco a poco, comenzaron a trabajar juntos para realizar un seguimiento de las necesidades de Logan a pesar de su limitado español y su limitado Inglés de ella. Recientemente, ella fue a una conferencia de padres y maestros sin un traductor.

“Yo tenía mi mal-español, y ella tenía su mal-ingles, y nos encontramos a la mitad del camino”, dijo Rangel. “Era la forma más interesante de un diálogo, y nos estábamos ayudando el uno a al otro.”

Sin embargo, algunos padres dicen que el nivel de alcance es raro en IPS.

La madre, Evelyn Barreuto, de la Escuela 88 una hispano hablante, dijo que ha tenido problemas para seguir el progreso de sus tres hijos – Isaac, Benjamín y Belén. A través de un intérprete, dijo que está preocupada por la falta de recursos para padres de habla hispana.

Barreuto dijo que hay poca o ninguna ayuda de la traducción. Ella se basa principalmente en sus hijos, que tienen fluidez en Inglés, o un intérprete de ‘Stand for Children’, un grupo que aboga por el cambio en el IPS, para mantenerla informada.

“Puedo entender un poco de Inglés, no mucho, lo sé, pero nunca he dejado que me impida la comunicación con los maestros y el director,” dijo Barreuto.

La presidente de la junta escolar Diane Arnold dijo que el distrito tiene que mejorar.

“No se puede tener a la gente a ser parte del proceso si no pueden participar plenamente”, dijo Arnold.
Feeser dijo que quiere aumentar los esfuerzos para conectarse con la comunidad de habla no-Inglés de IPS.

En enero invitó a profesores del idioma Inglés, traductores, centros comunitarios, grupos religiosos, escuelas privilegiadas, abogados de inmigración y las empresas locales, junto con el objetivo de tratar de conectar a las familias de IPS a los recursos que tal vez no se han dado cuenta que existían.

“Veo a nuestras escuelas como el corazón y el alma de la comunidad”, dijo Feeser. “Si los estudiantes están en un lugar emocionalmente feliz – tienen sus necesidades básicas de atención medica reunidas, ellos tienen el estómago lleno y un lugar cálido para dormir – sabemos que van a volver a la escuela y estarán dispuestos a aprender”.

Intentando reclutar más educadores diversos

La falta de diversidad en la fuerza laboral del distrito se ha vuelto más evidente ya que la población estudiantil ha cambiado.

Más del 23 por ciento de los estudiantes de IPS son hispanos, pero sólo alrededor del 2 por ciento de los maestros del distrito son hispanos, según el Departamento de Educación de Indiana.

Y el distrito tenía un solo latino como administrador de escuela – hasta que lo despidieron el año pasado

La decisión de despedir a Joel Muñoz, subdirector de la Secundaria George Washington, no le cayó bien a la comunidad hispana. Acababa de ser finalista para un premio de liderazgo en todo el estado, pero fue despedido junto con otros 23 debido a la nueva estrategia del distrito por permitirme a nuevos directores escogen sus propios asistentes.

“Esa fue una mala situación”, dijo Arnold. “Creo que era un buen chico y él parecía estar haciendo un buen trabajo.”

Después de que Muñoz dejara el distrito – terminó teniendo un trabajo como director en el Municipio de Pike y no respondió a una solicitud de comentarios – IPS dijo que se embarcaría en una variedad de iniciativas para aumentar la diversidad de su personal, incluyendo la contratación de un reclutador de distrito.

IPS no es el único que lucha por contratar a un personal docente diverso. Los maestros bilingües están en demanda en todo el condado de Marion y más allá, Arnold dijo, porque los distritos escolares han reconocido que los estudiantes prosperan cuando tienen mentores que comparten sus experiencias.

Arnold dijo que IPS tiene dificultades para reclutar a esos candidatos debido a su baja remuneración.

“Ellos pueden más o menos escribir su boleto a cualquier distrito,” dijo ella.

Los beneficios de la creciente diversidad del personal en IPS son claras para Rangel.

Un niño latino tímido en su clase, de repente habló un día, después de que Rangel tuviera a su clase leyendo “Esperanza Rising”, una novela sobre una niña que lucha por adaptarse a la vida en Estados Unidos después de que ella se mudó de México durante la Gran Depresión.

“Él… comienza a decirnos su historia acerca de venir a Estados Unidos”, dijo Rangel, “Ocultándose de los hombres que dan terror y de cómo su madre tuvo que dejarlo en México con sus abuelos, y luego él vino después. Él todavía tiene un hermano mayor allá”.

Este fue, Rangel se dio cuenta, un momento de gran avance.

“Él dijo ‘yo sabía que eres mexicano, por lo que, está bien si compartes conmigo'”, dijo Rangel. “Creo que (mis estudiantes) tienen menos miedo a tomar riesgos, y como adulto me doy cuenta de que esas son las cosas que te hacen o te rompen.”

Lost in Translation

10 inspiring minutes on education, freedom and the American dream

PHOTO: Scott Elliott
Elly Mawi expressed her gratitude for her teachers at Chalkbeat and WFYI's recent Conversation about Education focused on English language learners.

Chalkbeat’s recent series, Lost In Translation, jointly published with the Indianapolis Star and WFYI Public Media, aimed to shed light on the challenges schools face to help English language learners, especially those newly arrived from other countries, thrive.

But helping immigrant children at school also requires understanding their lives before coming to the United States and their broader experiences as newcomers to Indiana.

For Indianapolis, one of the biggest and fastest-growing immigrant student groups is children from Burma.

Last week, Chalkbeat brought together four people who shared their stories in the series for a panel discussion at the Central Library. For the full conversation, go here. But, thanks to WFYI, you can now view a 10-minute highlight video (below).

Be prepared to be moved.

Two of the panelists, May Oo Mutraw and and Elly Mawi, spoke passionately about the hardships Burmese families have in Indiana.

Most of them, Mutraw said, were fleeing a 66-year civil war that upended their lives.

“They lived literally in the war zone, said Mutraw, founder of Indianapolis’ Burmese Community Center for Education. “Their villages were burned down. They fled into the forest.”

Schooling, she said, was also a casualty.

“We are talking about a generation who did not get to go to school — the whole generation,” she said.

But in Indiana, with the help of public schools, they had an opportunity for a much better future. They understand the American dream.

“I personally always believed that through education we can liberate ourselves,” Mutraw said. “Education, for me and for my family, is a practice of freedom.”

Mawi, a top student graduating this year from Perry Township’s Southport High School, once sat on a dirt floor to learn from volunteer teachers in a refugee camp in Malaysia, said even in her community people don’t realize what many Burmese children have been through.

“We come here in the first place because we are at the line of life and death,” she said. “It’s whether you die or if you fight and you escape.”

Mawi praised Southport as a great place for English language learners and Perry Township as welcoming. But still, even there, not everyone understands how common her story is.

“A lot of times, people think the reason we come here is because of greed,” she said. “We get a lot of misunderstanding for that.”

Near the end of the event, Mawi turned to the audience to praise her teachers, several of whom were in the audience.

Some of them were moved to tears.

“This week is Teacher Appreciation Week, but not just this every day,” she said. “If you are a teacher sitting here tonight, or watching on live stream, thank you for what you have done.”

Mawi then addressed English as a new language teachers directly.

“As an ENL student … we thank you,” she said. “We love you. You make a difference. You might not get enough praise or enough pay or enough credit for what you have done. But you are making a difference every day in our lives.”

Teachers who have more challenges in the classroom, like helping kids learn to speak English, should be judged less harshly if test scores take time to catch up to their peers, she said.

“You are the unsung heroes of our society and community,” Mawi said, turning back toward the teachers. “We love you and thank you.”

Lost in Translation

Video: Advocates for English learners discuss challenges of teaching immigrant students

PHOTO: Scott Elliott
Charlie Geier of the Indiana Department of Education and Southport High School Student Elly Mawi speak on a panel hosted by Chalkbeat and WFYI at the Indianapolis Public Library.

Helping English language learners adapt to school in the U.S. isn’t simply the responsibility of specially trained teachers — or at least it shouldn’t be — experts argued Thursday.

At a panel discussion organized by Chalkbeat, WFYI and the Indianapolis Star at the Indianapolis Public Library Wednesday, key figures from a recent series of stories about English language learning in Indiana called “Lost in Translation” discussed the challenges that immigrant students face and ideas for how they can be better served in the future. The series was a joint effort of Chalkbeat, the Star and WFYI Public Media.

“I think what schools are struggling with is who owns these students,” said said Charlie Geier, who oversees English language learning programs for the Indiana Department of Education. “The answer is everybody owns these students. (Learning English) is just not something that happens in isolation for 15 minutes a day or 30 minutes a day.”

Along with Geier, the panel included Southport High School student Elly Mawi; May Oo Mutraw, founder of the Burmese Community Center for Education; and Eddie Rangel, an Indianapolis Public Schools teacher.

The speakers said schools need to take advantage of increased state funding, approved by the legislature in the wake of the series.

Video from the event is now available thanks to WFYI. If the video doesn’t play above, click here to watch it. You can find a shorter 10-minute version below.

The Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the American Graduate Project also helped sponsor the event.