Lost in Translation

A message for teachers of immigrant children: You make a difference

PHOTO: Scott Elliott
A panel discussion at the Central Library tonight focused on English language learners. Pictured are moderator Hayleigh Colombo of Chalkbeat; May Oo Mutraw, the founder of the Buremese Community Center for Education; Indianapolis Public Schools teacher Eddie Rangel; and Southport High School student Elly Mawy.

When an Indianapolis school meets new students from Burma, there is a lot the teachers, staff and their new classmates can’t imagine about the students’ life experiences.

May Oo Mutraw, the founder of the Burmese Community Center for Education, said schools often don’t understand what it means for families that come from a country like Burma, which has been embroiled in civil war for decades.

“These people lived literally in the war zones,” she said. “Their villages were burned down. They hid in the forest. If they heard boots of the soldiers, they fled again.”

For some, Indianapolis is the first place they’ve ever learned in an organized way.

“We are talking about a generation of people who did not get to go to school,” Mutraw said.

Mutraw joined Indianapolis Public Schools teacher Eddie Rangel, Southport High School student Elly Mawi and Charlie Geier, who heads the Indiana Department of Education’s English language learning efforts, for a panel discussion tonight to discuss the challenges of teaching children who are still learning to speak English.

The panel, moderated by Chalkbeat Indiana’s Hayleigh Colombo and held at the Central Library, was a follow-up to a series of stories jointly published last month by Chalkbeat, the Indianapolis Star and WFYI Public Media.

The series, called Lost In Translation, explored the challenges Indiana schools face to serve a fast-growing population of immigrant students. The stories reported funding had fallen behind as the number of English language learners has nearly tripled in Marion County.

Elly Mawi, a senior at Southport High School, came to the United States from a refugee camp after her family fled Burma. She praised Southport for being welcoming to immigrant students, but said she and her Burmese classmates do sometimes hear complaints in the community about the cost of serving them.

“We get a lot of misunderstanding,” she said. “They think we come here because of greed. We come here in the first place because we are at the line of life and death. You either die or escape.”

Last week, proponents of English language learning programs got some good news: the legislature more than doubled a grant program that supports instruction for children learning to speak English. Key lawmakers said the series helped raise awareness of the need for more funding.

Geier said the funding boost was an important step forward. Another recent upgrade was Indiana’s move to higher quality diagnostic tests schools now use to evaluate English language learners called World Class Instructional Design and Assessment.

The next step, he said, was to improve and expand training and license requirements for teachers of English language learners.

Just 900 Indiana teachers have a credential for expertise in teaching children learning to speak English on their teaching licenses, he said. Programs to prepare those teachers range wildly in what they require. Some require much less classwork and student teaching than others.

“We need to think about quality,” he said. “We have to have the right person doing the right work.”

Teachers who are dedicated to helping English language learners make a huge difference, said Mawi. Her teachers went above and beyond to help her. They met with her after school. They helped her fill out her college applications.

Mawi, who will graduate third in her class at Southport and will attend Butler University next year on a full scholarship, had a message for teachers of English language learners from all immigrant children like her:

“We thank you,” she said. “We love you. You make a difference every day in our lives.”

pre-k for all

New York City will add dual language options in pre-K to attract parents and encourage diversity

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Schools Chancellor Carmen FariƱa, back right, visits a Mandarin pre-K dual language program at P.S. 20 Anna Silver on the Lower East Side.

Education Department officials on Wednesday announced the addition of 33 dual language pre-K programs in the 2018-19 school year, more than doubling the bilingual opportunities available for New York City’s youngest learners.

The expansion continues an aggressive push under the current administration, which has added 150 new bilingual programs to date. Popular with parents — there were 2,900 applications for about 600 pre-K dual language seats last year — the programs can also be effective in boosting the performance of students who are learning English as a new language.

Another possible benefit: creating more diverse pre-K classrooms, which research has shown are starkly segregated in New York City.

Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña said the new programs reflect the city’s commitment to serving all students, even as a national debate rages over immigration reform.

“It’s important to understand that immigrants or people who speak a second language are an asset,” Fariña said. She called bilingual education “a gift that I think all schools should have.”

Included in the expansion are the city’s first dual language pre-K programs in Bengali and Russian, which will open in Jamaica, Queens, and the Upper West Side, Manhattan, respectively. The other additions will build on programs in Spanish, Mandarin and Italian. Every borough is represented in the expansion, with 11 new programs in Manhattan, nine in Brooklyn, six in Queens, five in the Bronx, and two on Staten Island.

In the dual-language model, students split their time between instruction in English and another language. At P.S. 20 Anna Silver, where the recent expansion was announced, pre-K students start the morning in English and transition to Mandarin after nap time. Experts say the model works best when the class includes an equal mix of students who are proficient in each language so they can learn from each other as well as the teacher, though it can often be difficult to strike that balance.

Officials and some advocates view dual-language programs as a tool for integration by drawing middle-class families eager to have their children speak two languages into neighborhood schools that they otherwise may not have considered. Research has shown that New York City’s pre-K classrooms tend to be more segregated than kindergarten. In one in six pre-K classrooms, more than 90 percent of students are from a single racial or ethnic background. That’s compared with one in eight kindergarten classrooms, according to a 2016 report by The Century Foundation.

Sharon Stapel, a mother from Brooklyn, said she knew early on that she wanted her daughter to learn another language and strike relationships across cultures. So she travels to the Lower East Side with her four-year-old, Finch, to attend the Mandarin dual-language pre-K program at P.S. 20 Anna Silver. On Wednesday, the city announced it will add a Spanish dual language program at the school.

“We really see it as how you build community with your neighbors and your friends,” Stapel said. “It was also an opportunity for Finch to become involved and engage in the cultures and in the differences that she could see in the classrooms — and really celebrate that difference.”

Citywide, about 13 percent of students are learning English as a new language. That number does not include pre-K since the state does not have a way to identify students’ language status before kindergarten. However, based on census data, it is estimated that 30 percent of three- and four-year-olds in New York are English learners.

Dual-language programs can benefit students who are still learning English — more so than English-only instruction. Nationally and in New York City, students who are learning English are less likely to pass standardized tests and graduate from high school. In one study, students who enrolled in dual-language courses in kindergarten gained the equivalent of one year of reading instruction by eighth grade, compared with their peers who received English-only instruction.

The city has been under pressure to improve outcomes for English learners. Under the previous administration, New York City was placed on a state “corrective action plan” that required the education department to open 125 new bilingual programs by 2013. Though the city fell short of that goal, the current administration has agreed to place every English learner in a bilingual program by the 2018-19 school year.

Among the greatest barriers to achieving that is finding qualified teachers, Fariña said. In some cases, it can be hard to find teachers who are fluent in the target language. In others, teachers who are native in a foreign language may only be certified in their home country, and it can be hard to transfer that certification to New York.

In order to open an Urdu program recently, Fariña said, the teacher, who holds a degree from another country, went through Teaching Fellows, an alternative certification program that usually caters to career-changers or recent college grads.

“I think the biggest challenge we have right now is ensuring our teacher preparation courses are keeping up with our need and demand for teachers who can teach another language,” she said.

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.”