Equity & Diversity

Un Día Nuevo for Schools

By Mary Ann Zehr — November 08, 2000 19 min read
Changing Face

Lucille Furia, the principal at William D’Abate Elementary School here, holds up a thick manual detailing a set of academic standards for all the parents and students to see.

“In education today, we have to set high expectations for our children,” Furia says. “By the time your children reach 4th grade, they should have reached many of the standards in this book.”

Then she passes the manual to a bilingual teacher standing next to her, who holds it up for a second time.

Un Día Nuevo
For Schools
Un Día Nuevo for Schools (includes:
A Bilingual Day in the Life)
A Passage From India

Las normas dicen lo que los alumnos deben saber y lo que pueden hacer,” Jenny P. Prull says. (“The standards say what the students ought to know and be able to do.”)

“It’s important we form a partnership with you, the family, the children, of course, and us here at the school,” Furia continues later, pausing for Prull to explain the importance of “un pacto entre los padres y la escuela.

Fifteen years ago, D’Abate Elementary’s open house might have included only a handful of Spanish-speaking families. Today, 64 percent of the K-5 school’s students are Hispanic; for many of them, Spanish is the only language they speak fluently.

This profound demographic change—found not only here in Rhode Island’s capital but in hundreds of other communities nationwide— has made it more important than ever for educators to reach out to Hispanic students to help them succeed.

For more than two decades, Hispanics’ test scores in reading, mathematics, and science have lagged behind those of non- Hispanic whites on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Their high school dropout rate is twice that of blacks and nearly four times that of non- Hispanic whites. Not surprisingly they are also less likely to complete college than their non-Hispanic peers.

Those statistics would be distressing under any circumstances. But Hispanics are also growing faster than any other racial or ethnic group in the country—a trend that is one of the most significant forces shaping America and its schools in the 21st century. In 1998, Hispanics became the nation’s largest minority group among children under 18, surpassing African-Americans. They now constitute 15 percent of the elementary school population and 13 percent of the secondary school population; in 25 years, one in every four children in U.S. elementary schools is expected to be of Latino origin.

A Changing Mix

Struggling in School

Uneven Growth

More on the Way

The United States

Dropping Out

Citing those statistics, a presidential commission on Hispanic education called this fall on all sectors of American society to work toward raising the educational performance of all Hispanic students to the same level as that of other U.S. students by 2010. (“Panel Targets Hispanic Lag in Attainment,” Oct. 4, 2000.)

“If we as a country do not make a commitment to the fastest-growing community in this country, we are jeopardizing its own future,” says Guillermo Linares, the chairman of the commission and a member of the New York City Council.

Fanning Out

More immigrants of all races and ethnicities are entering the United States than at any time since the turn of the 20th century, largely because of changes in immigration laws.

But with Hispanics, other factors are at work as well. While the percentage of legal immigrants who are Latino hasn’t changed in decades, illegal immigration from Spanish-speaking countries has increased. And once Hispanics move here, their numbers grow quickly; they have the highest fertility rate of any major racial or ethnic group in the nation, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Most of the nation’s Hispanics are concentrated in five states: California, Texas, Florida, Illinois, and New York. But more and more, they’re fanning out to cities like Providence.

  • Enrollment: 26,300
  • Student profile: 50 percent Hispanic, 23 percent African- American, 17 percent non-Hispanic white, 9 percent Asian/Pacific Islander, 1 percent American Indian
  • Percentage of students who receive free or reduced-price meals: 80
  • Superintendent: Diana Lam

Many come here in the hope that Providence, a city of 150,000 on Narragansett Bay, will offer a better quality of life—a quieter place to raise a family, with less crime and more affordable housing—than some of the larger cities that often serve as their initial port of entry to the United States. There are plenty of jobs here that don’t require proficiency in English or a high school diploma, such as polishing metalwork in jewelry factories, cutting up fish in food-processing plants, and staffing hotels and delis.

And among undocumented immigrants, Providence is viewed as a place where the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service is less likely to track them down, notes Jose M. Gonzalez, a mainland-born Hispanic of Puerto Rican descent who directs the school district’s office of equity and access.

Thanks in part to those factors, the U.S. Census Bureau projects that Rhode Island will have a greater percentage increase in school-age Latinos—56 percent—between now and 2015 than any other state. Already, Providence’s Latino student population has grown from 27 percent of enrollment to 50 percent over the past decade.

How the 26,300- student district adjusts to the changes could provide a preview of the challenges that many other districts could face in the near future.

“This is an area where the Hispanic population is growing rapidly and there was not a large base to start with, and it is transforming the schools,” says Roger C. Avery, an adjunct associate professor at the Population Studies and Training Center at Brown University here. “There are other cities where it is happening as well.”

Such districts can expect to face some serious challenges, observes Raul Gonzalez, who was born in Puerto Rico and is the education policy analyst for the National Council of La Raza, a Hispanic advocacy organization.

“One of the things that is different in emerging areas as opposed to California and Texas, where Hispanics have been [for decades or centuries], is there isn’t always the infrastructure set up to provide services for Hispanic families and students,” Gonzalez says.

In particular, he adds, schools in emerging Latino communities are less likely to apply for federal grants under Title VII of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which pays for programs to teach students English, or have bilingual employees who can communicate with parents.

Diana Lam, who last year became the first Hispanic superintendent ever hired by the district here, shares that view. A native of Peru, Lam served previously as the superintendent of the San Antonio schools.

“It’s a younger population here—meaning fewer years in this country,” Lam says in comparing her Rhode Island and Texas districts. “Educationally, it means we have to be up to snuff as far as first- and second-language opportunities.”

‘No English— Nothing’

Typical of many Latino immigrant families moving to Providence is the route taken by Dinorah Cabrera and her daughter, Belcanyelli Fana, who registered for middle school in late September. Cabrera brought her daughter to the United States from the Dominican Republic when she was 2 weeks old and since then has lived with her in Boston and New York City, except for a one- year period when they returned to their homeland.

Providence now has the third-largest enclave of Dominican immigrants of any northeastern U.S. city, next to New York City and Boston.

Cabrera says she’s seeking a quieter life in Providence than she and her daughter recently experienced in New York.

“You know how New York is,” she says in English to the evaluator in the district’s student-registration center who is testing Belcanyelli’s English and Spanish abilities. “She’s 13. That’s why we moved here,” she adds, in a tone that implies there’s no need to elaborate further.

Belcanyelli is like many other students arriving at the center, not only in that she is Dominican and lived somewhere else in the United States before moving here—true of an estimated half the city’s Dominican families—but also that she qualifies as limited-English-proficient and is more fluent in Spanish than in English.

In New York City, Belcanyelli was enrolled in transitional bilingual education, in which academic subjects are taught in a student’s native tongue while he or she learns English, with the goal of moving the child to mainstream classes. The Providence bilingual-evaluation specialist, Peter J. Sclafani, suspects from his assessment of Belcanyelli’s language abilities that she received more instruction in Spanish there than in English. “Sometimes, school systems fail to move students along,” he says.

Bilingual education is an option for Spanish-speaking students in Providence, but Sclafani recommends that Belcanyelli enroll in an English-as-a-second-language program, where all instruction will be in English. Her mother agrees.

“The goal is to get students into the mainstream as soon as possible,” Sclafani explains later. “When she gets into high school, she doesn’t want to have Spanish as a crutch.”

Nine-year-old Gabriela Antelo, a Bolivian girl who entered school the same week that Belcanyelli registered for classes, is typical of many other immigrant students coming to Providence in that she immigrated directly from her native country and will start learning English from square one.

A bus driver delivers Gabriela to the main office of Asa Messer Elementary School on a Monday morning, announcing: “This is her first day of school. No English. Nothing.”

Undaunted, the girl smiles and looks up at the adults in the office with warm brown eyes.

The secretary sends her to the 5th grade ESL classroom, as specified by the registration paper the girl is carrying. But in fact, the next day—after a slot for her opens up—she is reassigned to the bilingual track in another school.

And thus Gabriela begins her American education.

Range of Approaches

How students like Belcanyelli and Gabriela should be taught is a matter of great debate across the country.

Transitional bilingual education, the norm for many Spanish-speaking children since the late 1970s, has recently come under attack in several states because of concerns that students tend to languish in the programs instead of becoming proficient in English.

In California, voters approved a ballot initiative in 1998 that replaced most bilingual education programs with English-immersion programs, and a proposal for a similar law was on the state ballot in Arizona this week.

Many school districts with emerging populations of Latinos now offer only English-as-a-second-language programs, in which teachers use simplified English to teach academic subjects and English skills. Two-way bilingual education programs, in which students who are dominant in Spanish and those who are dominant in English receive instruction in both languages, usually in the same classroom, are also growing; U.S. Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley recently endorsed that approach.

Providence, a district where about one in every five students is deemed limited-English-proficient and 80 percent of those students are Spanish-speaking, offers the whole gamut of methods.

Schools here are designated to provide one or two of the various approaches. The district buses students to the school that offers the method most appropriate for their educational backgrounds if it’s not provided in the public school closest to where they live.

Adriana Sanchez, a Guatemalan who moved to Providence seven years ago, says she enrolled her 5-year-old daughter in the transitional-bilingual-education track at D’Abate Elementary School because she wanted her to learn two languages.

Speaking in Spanish, she says: “At home, we speak only Spanish. For now, I want her to study in bilingual education. Later, she will study only in English.”

But Beatriz Trejo, an immigrant from Mexico who came to Providence five years ago by way of Florida, says she was opposed to bilingual education for her 5-year-old son. She enrolled him in the regular kindergarten at D’Abate this year.

“I don’t like bilingual,” she says, after requesting to be interviewed in English rather than Spanish. “It’s too hard for him to do homework in English and homework in Spanish.”

Meanwhile, Socorro Gomez-Potter, a native of Mexico and the principal of Alfred A. Lima Sr. Elementary School here, is gradually phasing out the school’s transitional-bilingual-education track and replacing it with a two-way bilingual education program for all students.

Transitional bilingual education is “very difficult to carry out, given that our teachers are Spanish- dominant and some of them are limited-English-proficient themselves,” Gomez- Potter says. “Can you see the difficulty of developing English?”

Lam, the superintendent, strongly supports bilingual education, but she acknowledges some of the criticisms of the method.

Unfortunately, she says, “just about anything has passed as bilingual education,” in part because some proponents of the method have been reluctant to collect data or conduct longitudinal studies to determine if their approach is effective.

In the worst-case scenario, she adds, “We say: ‘We can’t teach students to read in English yet because they are bilingual’ or ‘They can’t do it’ or ‘They have to do ESL first or oral language.’ By the same token, we don’t teach them to read in Spanish, and they end up being illiterate in both languages.”

Lam praises Providence educators for having done “a lot of work” already to ensure high-quality bilingual education and ESL programs. But she believes such classes can be strengthened, particularly at the high school level.

In two of the district’s high schools with large concentrations of Latinos, fewer than 15 percent of 10th graders met the state’s standards for reading on its standardized test this year. In the district overall, the scores of Hispanic 10th graders lagged behind those of black, non-Hispanic white, and Asian-American students in reading, writing, and mathematics—all of the subjects that were tested. More than twice as many whites as Hispanics in that grade met the state’s standard for math skills, for example.

“I want to make sure the kids are reading, writing, and can solve problems,” Lam says. “The expectations are no less for our Latino children. To have a lower level of expectations is the wrong message.”

Focus on Literacy

The centerpiece of the district’s efforts to address the needs of LEP students is a framework launched last year called the Language Instruction For Transition, or LIFT. The framework describes how decisions should be made to place students in bilingual education or ESL classes, criteria for measuring their progress in English, and projections for how much time they should spend in the programs.

The document’s attention to detail has helped Providence educators rise above the kinds of arguments on how best to serve LEP students that have brought stalemate in some other districts, and allowed the district to focus on improving all of its LEP programs, says Fran S. Mossberg, the director of the district’s department of language and culture. As an administrator for LEP students since the early 1980s, she says she’s seen the district’s services for such students evolve from “loosey-goosey” to “thoughtful and clinical.”

“Everything is benchmarked,” Mossberg says about LIFT, which is also the name the district gives to its collective programs for LEP students. “We have rubrics, criteria, and validation studies.”

Mossberg has put a lot of effort into promoting one of LIFT’s central messages: Teachers need to spend more time having students with limited English proficiency read and write in class to develop strong literacy skills.

That push is being reinforced as Lam rolls out a new program to increase the literacy of all district students—not just those classified as LEP. The district has hired a literacy coach for each elementary school to promote reading and writing; eventually, every school, even at the high school level, will have such a coach.

To Lam, there’s no better way to combat high dropout rates than to teach every child to read.

“Literacy is a long-term strategy for ensuring success,” the superintendent says. “Students start dropping out in middle school—they start tuning out. My belief is if a child experiences success in school, and what we offer is engaging and motivating, they’re going to come.”

A recent visit to three Providence elementary schools suggests that younger students with limited backgrounds in English are indeed spending a lot of time reading and writing in that language.

In a 5th grade ESL class at Asa Messer Elementary, for example, students work for the entire 50-minute period writing stories about their lives—something they do almost every day, according to their teacher, Christina A. Mannion. The students take turns sitting in the “author’s chair,” where she gives them one-on-one instruction.

“Did you look this word up in the dictionary?” Mannion asks student Lisanllily Sosa, pointing to the word “celebrated” on the girl’s paper.

Lisanllily, a native of the Dominican Republic who moved to Providence two years ago from Boston, shakes her head no.

“Excellent job—you got it right,” Mannion says.

Even in mainstream elementary classes, where students are fully fluent in English (though their first language may not be English), students are immersed daily in literacy activities.

But a visit to Central High School, one of the district’s lowest-achieving secondary schools, finds much less emphasis on reading and writing. And Mossberg acknowledges that elementary teachers are doing a better job than high school teachers in integrating students whose first language isn’t English into regular classes.

“When you are teaching as an elementary teacher, you have the child all day long,” she says. “You are forced to meet his or her needs. In secondary, everything is departmentalized. The whole child is fragmented. There’s not one person who can make sure the student is developing literacy because you’re changing teachers every 50 minutes.”

Felicidad Arias, a Bolivian immigrant who teaches chemistry and biology at Central High in classes especially designed for LEP students, says she finds it difficult to bring some of her students to the point where they’re capable of taking regular classes.

“Some kids will go to school for two years in their own country and then stop and go to work,” Arias says. “Then for some reason, they come here, and these kids, because of their age, they will go to high school. But how can you teach these kids? They don’t know how to read in their own language. Where are you going to place them? They can’t go to bilingual classes because they don’t have the skills in Spanish.”

In addition to having a poor educational background, Arias says, many of her students come from families with severe financial problems, and some students have to work to support themselves. Overall, 80 percent of the district’s students qualify for a federally subsidized or free lunch.

“I tell them education is important,” Arias says, “but some of them are not motivated. They need to survive, so education is not a priority.”

Teacher Shortage

One of the most pressing ongoing problems in Providence in educating immigrant Latinos is keeping enough qualified teachers.

“We cannot recruit them. There’s a tremendous shortage of folks out there,” says Mossberg, the director of the district’s language department. As a result, she says, many of those who are teaching LEP students in the district aren’t actually certified to do so.

Other districts are experiencing similar problems. More than two-thirds of 40 urban districts responding to a survey conducted last year by the nonprofit group Recruiting New Teachers and the Council of the Great City Schools reported an immediate demand for certified bilingual education and ESL teachers. Eighty percent of the same districts said they permit noncredentialed teachers to teach.

The challenge in Providence is exacerbated by a city residency mandate that requires all teachers to live within city limits, something that many possible hires don’t want to do.

Gonzalez, the district’s equity and access administrator, says he still needs to hire teachers who are certified both in bilingual education and special education to satisfy an agreement with the U.S. Department of Education’s office for civil rights that followed an investigation in the 1998-99 school year. The district had fallen behind in its obligation to identify LEP students who have disabilities and give them the special services they are entitled to by federal law.

Gonzalez has already hired bilingual specialists to form an additional team to evaluate those students and shorten the amount of time they might wait for special education services, but he hasn’t been able to fill four other required positions. “We’re still at risk of violating the contract through no fault of our own,” he says.

No Looking Back

Educators here say that if they had the past decade to live over again, they would have moved more quickly to accommodate the population shift.

They would have provided more professional development to teachers, to help them change their philosophies and practices to better teach immigrant students. They would have hired more Spanish-speaking personnel. And they would have given the education of students with limited English abilities the attention it deserved; for too long, they say, ESL and bilingual education classrooms were tucked away in basements or other places removed from the central activity of schools.

But Hispanics are encouraged by recent developments, such as the hiring of Superintendent Lam, says Victor F. Capellan, one of two Hispanic district administrators Lam has hired since joining the district. Three of the nine members of the Providence school board are also Hispanic.

“People feel they are important—listened to,” says Capellan, who runs the district’s parent-information and registration center. “They’re talking to the person at the top.”

Gonzalez, who in 1971 was one of only six Latinos in his graduating class at Central High, says the influx of Latinos has been good for Providence.

“They’ve revitalized a downward spiraling community,” he says. “Companies were leaving, no one wanted to live in Providence. The Latino community wants to work hard and become part of the mainstream.”

Gomez-Potter, the principal at Lima Elementary School, acknowledges that not everyone in the city sees it that way. Some people still look back with nostalgia to when the communities around the schools were less poor and diverse, she says.

“I hear the comments consistently from teachers and parents: ‘I remember, I remember, I remember.’ And they’re not remembering back 30 years ago. They’re remembering back 15 years ago,” Gomez-Potter says.

To them, the demographic changes automatically go hand in hand with lower academic achievement, she observes.

“But they’re not believing all children can learn,” the principal adds. “We need to change with the community.”

A version of this article appeared in the November 08, 2000 edition of Education Week as Un Día Nuevo for Schools


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