School & District Management

School Successes Inspire N.C. Push for Dual Language

By Lesli A. Maxwell — October 14, 2014 10 min read
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At Collinswood Language Academy, a K-8 dual-language school in a working-class neighborhood in this Southern city, students produced some of the highest math achievement scores in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school district.

And that’s the case even though they learn all their math in Spanish, and take North Carolina’s annual end-of-grade math exams in English.

“Taking the tests in English was tricky at first,” said Mayra Martinez, an 8th grader who spoke only Spanish when she entered kindergarten at the school. “I remember the word ‘subtract’ stumping me.”

The school’s high marks in math—mirrored in reading and science—are coming from every category of student at Collinswood: low-income, English-language learners, Hispanic, African-American, white, and those in special education. They are inspiring a push to create more such programs statewide.

From kindergarten through 8th grade, Collinswood’s 750 students—who are a nearly even mix of native Spanish-speakers and native English-speakers—are taught math, social studies, Spanish/language arts, and higher-level language courses in Spanish. Science and English/language arts are taught in English. Physical education is taught in Spanish, and English is the main language of instruction for art and music. Collinswood is a magnet school that admits students from across the southern half of the 144,000-student district through an open lottery system.

“I think it’s the cognitive power they build because they have learned to transfer from one language to the next,” said Jacqueline Saavedra, a kindergarten teacher at Collinswood, in explaining why the school’s students consistently outperform most of their peers in Charlotte-Mecklenburg. “It raises their achievement in everything.”

Kindergartners wait in line after a water break at Collinswood. Selected by lottery, the 750 students at the K-8 magnet school are a nearly even mix of native Spanish speakers and native English speakers.

Raising achievement across the board—while producing a new generation of bilingual, biliterate students—is at the heart of North Carolina’s statewide initiative to replicate the success of Collinswood and dozens of other dual-language immersion programs that have taken root during the last several years. Drawing in part on the language and cultural assets of a large and still-growing Spanish-speaking immigrant population, North Carolina is on the leading edge of a trend of steady growth in dual-language immersion programs in public schools across the nation that has been driven both by strong parental demand and growing recognition among educators of its promise for increasing achievement for English-learners. Roughly 2,500 dual-language programs are operating this school year, according to estimates from national experts.

‘Global Education’ Push

The state is so serious about it, in fact, that the North Carolina board of education has committed, as part of a larger strategic plan for promoting “global education,” to a number of initiatives that will expand and deepen dual-language programs during the next five years. Among those commitments: bringing at least one full dual-language immersion program that spans kindergarten through 12th grade to each of the state’s 115 districts, and partnering with colleges and universities to develop the special cadre of bilingual, biliterate educators—including teachers and administrators—that such programs demand.

“The bottom line for us is that all of our subgroups in dual-language immersion are doing well,” said Helga Fasciano, special assistant for global education in the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction. “They all outperform their monolingual peers across the board.”

On top of the achievement gains, North Carolina’s quest to produce larger numbers of college- and career-ready graduates requires a bigger investment in “global education,” Ms. Fasciano said.

“With more graduates who are bilingual, biliterate, and who have deeply studied and gained understanding of other cultures and regions of the world, our communities gain so much from that,” she said. “And our students are prepared to go out and find success in such an interconnected world.”

Parsing Academic Gains

The achievement gains of dual-language learners alone, argues researcher Wayne P. Thomas, should be “getting every policymaker to jump out of his or her seat” to do more to support and expand dual-language immersion.

Mr. Thomas, a professor emeritus of evaluation and research methods at George Mason University, in Fairfax, Va., and Virginia P. Collier, a professor emeritus of education at George Mason, have been conducting a multiyear analysis of reading and math achievement to evaluate how North Carolina’s dual-language students are stacking up against their nondual-language peers. They have so far pored over three years of scores (2007-08 through 2009-10) on the end-of-grade reading and math exams given to students in grades 3-8. They have zeroed in on students in seven districts who are enrolled in two-way, dual-language programs—those where there is a close-to-even split of native English-speakers and native speakers of the other language of instruction, usually Spanish.

Overall, they have found that in the North Carolina districts with two-way, dual-language instruction, students score statistically significantly higher in reading in 4th grade than their nondual-language peers, a pattern that continues through 8th grade. By 5th grade, dual-language students score about the same as their monolingual peers a grade ahead of them, an advantage that lasts through 8th grade. The same pattern plays out in math, with 5th grade dual-language students scoring as high as nonprogram peers who are in 6th grade.

The two groups of students who are benefitting the most from dual-language instruction, the researchers say, are English-language learners and African-American students.

Tatiana Medina, center, jokes with classmate Nancy Avila during a 7th grade Spanish-for-native-speakers class at Collinswood Language Academy in Charlotte, N.C. Students take some core academic classes in Spanish and some in English in the school’s two-way immersion program.

For English-learners in dual-language programs, reading scores in all the tested grades are much higher than for ELLs who are not in a dual-language program, according to the study. In math, the picture is the same. English-learners in dual-language programs score as high as their nondual-language ELL peers who are a grade ahead of them.

In their analyses, Mr. Thomas and Ms. Collier have found that African-American students in dual-language programs significantly outscore their nondual-language peers in reading in all tested grades. By the 4th grade, they are scoring ahead of their nondual-language peers who are a grade ahead of them. The pattern is the same in math.

“The number one impact of this type of instruction is on their cognitive development, which is cumulative every year,” Mr. Thomas said. “The other key factor is the level of student engagement. Those two things are adding up to a lot of positive effect for our most historically disadvantaged groups.”

The researchers have also conducted on-site interviews with teachers, students, administrators, and parents in the two-way, dual-language schools to get a better understanding of why achievement is strong, attendance rates are high, and students are engaged.

In delving into why black students are performing at much higher levels in dual language than their peers who are not, Ms. Collier said teachers offer some revealing answers.

Benefits Accrue

For some African-American students who may speak a nonstandard form of English at home, learning in Spanish is making them more “metalinguistically aware,” which teachers say develops their literacy skills in English, Ms. Collier said.

“Teachers also tell me that their African-American students are so highly engaged,” Ms. Collier said. “It’s like being in a gifted program where they are able to make leaps in learning and get to the more interesting stuff. They are not bored.”

What teachers like Ms. Saavedra at Collinswood see in their dual-language-learning students—high levels of engagement, ease of switching between two languages—has been borne out in cognitive research. Being bilingual—aside from the obvious advantage of enabling communication in more than one language—enhances memory and makes it easier to pay attention.

But with all the promise of dual language in North Carolina comes major challenges to expanding it on a broader scale.

Instructional charts written in Spanish line the walls of Gilberto Franco’s 8th grade mathematics class at Collinswood Language Academy in Charlotte, N.C. The success of dual-language programs at Collinswood and other schools has led to a statewide push to replicate the programs.

Already, every dual-language program in the state—there are now about 90—struggles to find teachers who have both the language and pedagogy skills that are required, said Ms. Fasciano. And once they do find qualified teachers, holding onto them can be even tougher.

For the two-way dual-language programs and schools, the hunt for teachers requires hiring from outside the United States. Districts like Charlotte-Mecklenburg work directly with private agencies that help identify qualified foreign teachers and arrange with the U.S. State Department to secure visas, which are good for up to five years.

“We do have to rely on a pretty healthy number of international faculty,” Ms. Fasciano said. “The principals have really been the heroes in this effort. It’s them recognizing how powerful this type of instruction is for kids, and going to great lengths to make it happen.”

Nicolette Grant, the principal at Collinswood—which is recognized by the government of Spain as an exemplar school for Spanish-language instruction—said even in the state’s largest city, finding teachers for dual language is difficult. This school year, 11 members of the school’s faculty are visiting teachers from other countries such as Colombia, Mexico, and Peru.

“We get to keep them for no more than five years,” Ms. Grant said. “You can imagine the enormous adjustments they go through both professionally and personally upon moving here from their home countries. It’s not really until their third year that they hit their stride.”

In the 2012-13 academic year when North Carolina gave its first common-core aligned tests, Collinswood students—55 percent of whom are poor enough to qualify for free and reduced-price meals—dramatically outscored their peers in other Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools and the state, even though the schools’ scores dropped on the new, more rigorous exams.

Nearly 70 percent of students in the six tested grades scored at grade level or higher on the state’s end-of-grade tests in math. By comparison, that figure for the Charlotte-Mecklenburg district was 46 percent, and for the state, it was 42 percent. In reading, 65 percent of the school’s students scored at or above grade level, compared to 46 percent for the district and 44 percent in the state.

Twenty percent of the school’s English-learners scored at or above grade level on both reading and math tests, compared to 6 percent for the district and the state. And 50 percent of Collinswood’s black students passed both tests, compared to 18 percent in the district and 14 percent statewide.

View From Inside

At Collinswood on a rainy September morning, the noticias, or announcements, are underway, with some of the school’s 5th graders delivering the day’s news via Webcast to the school, all in Spanish.

In José Hernández’s physical education class, 3rd graders gallop in circles chanting a game that requires them to choose the right pronoun in Spanish: él for him, ella for her, and so on. Ms. Grant started Spanish-language P.E. a few years ago after noticing she wasn’t hearing as much Spanish in the cafeteria and on the playground.

“They had the academic Spanish, but they were lacking social Spanish,” she said.

Across the hall, Gilberto Franco-Yory’s 7th graders are intently focused on his lesson on poligonos, or polygons. And in Karen Meadow’s 6th grade science class, where English is the language of instruction, students are working in small groups doing research that will help them craft response plans to a hypothetical malaria outbreak.

“What I see is that our kids, who’ve been in dual language since kindergarten, are coming to my class with such rich prior knowledge that goes beyond the languages,” Ms. Meadow said. “They bring cultural perspectives about how science and environmental issues have impacted their grandmother’s country, or for our kids whose families aren’t immigrants, they’ve been exposed to these kinds of experiences,” through their classmates.

For parent Dolores Andral, the achievement of Collinswood’s African-American students is what sold her as she weighed whether to send her twin sons—now in 7th grade—to their neighborhood school or to apply for a spot at the dual-language school.

“Being a person of color, I have to look much more closely at what the data show for black students, especially black boys,” said Ms. Andral. “The performance of all students, but especially black students here, made it the choice for our family.”

Coverage of “deeper learning” that will prepare students with the skills and knowledge needed to succeed in a rapidly changing world is supported in part by a grant from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, at Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the October 15, 2014 edition of Education Week as Dual-Language Programs Take Root in N.C.


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