Embracing native language at Stamford school catches Ed Chief’s eye

Stamford — With one of every four students at Rogers Elementary School speaking limited English, and their test results showing they are far behind their peers, school officials knew it was time for a new approach.

They decided to embrace the foreign language many of their students were speaking and infuse it into the curriculum. By the time students go onto high school, students will have taken seven years of foreign language: one year each of Mandarin, Spanish and French by fourth grade and then the remaining years focusing on one of those languages.

“Spanish-speaking students really love this. They may not be great at reading or math but they find value in being really great at this,” said Jennifer Argenio, a social worker at the school. “It improves their self-esteem and in turn makes them more motivated and successful in other subjects.”

This approach has caught the eye of state Education Commissioner Stefon Pryor who, during his visit to the school Tuesday, said it’s a model he wants to duplicate.

“Rogers started out as a struggling school,” he said, noting that the school has been turned around since its transition to a model known as International Baccalaureate in 2002.

Since the reorganization, test scores for students attending the school continue to significantly increase, and English-language learners are outperforming their peers statewide and district-wide on math, reading and writing tests. For example, just 25 percent of ELL students statewide were proficient in reading compared to 40 percent at Rogers during the 2009-10 school year, the most recent year available.

“It is such a terrific idea to embrace proficiency in multiple languages. Students at Rogers with a Spanish-language background, are viewed as having an advantage when they enter the school,” Pryor said. “It is too rare that this occurs, and it’s the kind of best practice that needs to be further explored and promoted.”

During Pryor’s first days on the job he called it “shameful” that Connecticut has the worst achievement gap in the nation between white students and Hispanic students, as well as other subgroups.

With Stamford hosting the fourth largest Hispanic population in the state, Pryor welcomes what seems to be a successful approach to turn around low-achieving schools.

“You’ve really got something here,” he told officials during a tour of the school. “What a terrific turnaround story.”

An analysis of test results by Connecticut Voices for Children, a nonprofit advocacy group, says that while language ability contributes to the gaps, there is more to the story. The reports says poverty, no preschool experience and lack of parental involvement also are to blame.

To tackle those obstacles, Rogers has deployed several strategies, including opening a food bank in the school to ensure that students have food when they go home. Alicia Hernandez, a outreach coordinator at the school, said the food pantry helps dozens of families each month.

“They’re more willing to come in, and while they’re here they stop by and talk about their child’s education,” she told Pryor.

Also, since about half the students at the school have a non-English speaking parent, which makes it difficult for them to participate in their education, the school began an English-language learning course for parents and city residents. About 350 people participate each year, Hernandez said.