Natalie Griffin’s surprise pregnancy at age 15 could have derailed her high school career.
Instead, it forged her into the obstacle-defying educator she became decades later.
Thirty-five years ago, Griffin was a strong student, planning on becoming a nurse. Suddenly, her educational future was in doubt. Her Christian high school barred pregnant students from attending class, so her Bible teacher helped with lessons. Her dad filled in when he could.
It was difficult and piecemeal, but her parents drew a hard line: Griffin was going to finish high school and be the first college graduate in the family.
“It was never really a question of if but a question of how,” Griffin said. “It all comes back to my people and them pushing me and believing.”
I know what it’s like to have people think you won't accomplish something. So we operate under the mindset that it’s not too hard, that we can, and we will. We’re going to do it.
More than three decades later, Griffin, 51, now responsible for English learners in the Mineral Wells, Texas, school district, is the one pushing.
She pushes her students—many of whom come from low-income families and have had little formal schooling before arriving in the district—to realize their potential.
And she pushes her district to steer resources toward educating these students in their native languages, while building their English skills, even as some teachers worried these students could never catch up academically to their peers.
Under Griffin’s leadership, Mineral Wells, a 3,000-student district an hour outside Houston, defied those expectations, pulling off an achievement-gap-closing feat few school systems can claim: Its English learners—called emergent bilingual students in Texas—generally perform on par with, or even better than, their peers who are not still learning English in core-content areas like English and math, according to the results of the most recent state assessments.
In helping them get there, Griffin channeled her parents all those years ago, finding ways for her students to succeed despite big hurdles, especially a lack of qualified bilingual teachers.
“I know what it’s like to have people think you won’t accomplish something,” Griffin said. “So we operate under the mindset that it’s not too hard, that we can, and we will. We’re going to do it.”
A major shift in programming
Test-score data have validated Griffin’s faith in her students: 65 percent of all students in the district met grade-level standards in reading in 2019, a percentage matched by English learners.
That’s a 10-point jump compared with scores from the 2015-16 school year, just before Griffin, a former elementary school principal, was elevated to her current position.
“For so long, we weren’t doing enough for our bilingual students,” Mineral Wells’ Superintendent John Kuhn said. “This may be the first time in our district’s history we’re doing right by these students.”
Getting there took a fundamental shift in how the district—and larger community—approaches English learners, who make up about 16 percent of its enrollment.
Before Griffin took over the bilingual education department in February 2017, Mineral Wells used an “early exit” program for English learners. That meant students moved on from the program once they demonstrated some ability to speak and write in English, generally after about three years. Now, English learners stay in the program even after they’ve met the bar for grade-level proficiency in core subjects like math and reading, usually exiting after about five to seven years.
Another important difference: With late-exit programs, students spend more time learning in their native language to support their academic progress, even as they improve proficiency in English.
Texas, unlike many other states, has never banned using bilingual education models to teach English learners. In fact, the state in 1973 passed a law mandating bilingual education in districts that have a critical mass of students from the same language background. The law says explicitly that educating students in their native languages is an important part of their learning.
That early and sustained acceptance of bilingual education laid the groundwork for Griffin’s efforts, she said.
“What we saw for our kids was that when they left the early-exit model, they didn’t have enough comprehension of either language to keep building on,” Griffin said. “So, when they keep learning [content] in their native language, they can better learn in a second language too.”
Mineral Wells’ approach to English-language instruction, and its English learner students’ academic performance compared with their peers,’ is impressive, said Phyllis Jordan, the associate director of the think tank FutureEd.
Districts that use this approach typically expose students to more grade-level materials in their native languages, which can aid their understanding as they learn English, she said.
“That’s a good strategy, and it sounds like it’s paying off for them,” Jordan said.
Shifting to a late-exit program was ambitious and logistically challenging. Keeping students in the bilingual program longer meant adding seven more classes of English learners in a district already struggling to recruit and retain educators.
On top of that, Mineral Wells was under pressure from the state education department. A few years earlier, the state denied the district’s request for a waiver from a mandate that school systems have one bilingual teacher for every 20 students from the same language background. Mineral Wells had received the waiver every year for more than a decade, but state officials grew frustrated with the lack of progress in bringing on bilingual staff.
It was a wake-up call for district leaders. Soon after, Kuhn promoted Griffin, who grew up in Mineral Wells, and had spent her entire career in the district as a teacher and then a school leader.
Both were aware of the seriousness of the situation. In the short term, losing the waiver meant more state scrutiny. If nothing changed, Mineral Wells could face fines and even jeopardize its accreditation.
Instead, in just five years, under Griffin’s leadership, Mineral Wells increased the number of bilingual teachers by about two each year, from five to 12. That’s still short of the roughly 16 the district needs. But the state feels Mineral Wells is making progress and has reinstated its waiver.
The district succeeded where others fell short. Districts across the country have struggled to hire bilingual educators in recent years. A 2021 report from Jordan’s organization found 25 states, including Texas, had staffing shortages in that area.
‘It’s like finding gold’
Griffin realized early that Mineral Wells is too small to compete with the big signing bonuses and larger salaries of nearby districts, including Dallas and Houston.
So her search for talent started within the district, where she encouraged bilingual teachers of general education classes like 4th grade math, life skills, and art, to pursue bilingual certification. She persuaded four others who grew up in Mineral Wells and were already working in the education profession to come back and serve the community.
She’s even dipped into nearby Mexico to find staff.
The district offered $5,000 hiring bonuses to bilingual teachers and poured more money into training and professional development. Griffin convinced district leaders to reimburse staff members who pursued bilingual certification, and to support flexible work schedules so they could take courses and exams without using vacation time.
The return on that investment has been “worth every penny,” Kuhn said.
Bringing bilingual teachers to Mineral Wells is “like finding gold,” Kuhn said. “When you’re a leader, you’re going to be confronted with challenges that appear to be insurmountable. Real leaders don’t believe that and find a way over that. That’s what she’s done.”
Getting community buy-in sometimes isn’t easy or immediate
Kuhn and Griffin were initially wary that their conservative-leaning community might reject the idea of funneling more resources toward English learners.
President Donald Trump secured nearly 80 percent of the local votes in the 2020 election. Many in the community believe that immigrants to America should quickly learn English.
But if there have been detractors, they’ve largely kept their opinions to themselves. And Griffin believes the results are hard to argue with.
“People didn’t really have any proof to believe in what we were doing, but now, the proof is basically in the pudding,” Griffin said. “The past way, it wasn’t benefiting us, and that’s easy to show in the data. Now, the data shows we’re doing what’s right for the kids.”
Families have begun to recognize the benefits.
“She’s taken the program to a whole new level,” said Brenda Leal, whose older son was part of the shorter, early-exit program and whose younger son got the late-exit experience. “I hope that Mrs. Natalie stays in this position for many, many years to come, because her work is so important for this district.”
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Coverage of strategies for advancing the opportunities for students most in need, including those from low-income families and communities, is supported by a grant from the Walton Family Foundation, at www.waltonk12.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the February 15, 2023 edition of Education Week as Shaking Up Expectations For English Learners