When it came time for Aracelis Hidalgo to enroll her two sons in school, it became clear that her local public school in Bridgeport would not be embracing Spanish – the only language she and her children understood.
Instead, her sons were put into English-only classes and given some extra tutoring. School announcements were sent home in English, and no translators were available to help her communicate with teachers.
“It shouldn’t be this way,” Hidalgo said through a translator. Her Spanish-speaking daughter, who will start school in the fall, sat on her lap. “I wish the schools would have both languages.”
The family’s experience is common. English-only classes with added supports is the primary approach in Connecticut public schools to helping students learn English – and it is producing dismal outcomes.
In Bridgeport, only 47 percent of the English learners receiving language supports showed any overall progress on English proficiency tests during the 2013-14 school year, the last year for which the state tracked data. In Hartford, which enrolls more English learners than any other Connecticut district, 46 percent showed any progress.
Over the last two school years, only one-third of English learners met the state’s target for improvement on another key measure – the standardized English assessment test all students take. The State Department of Education says English learners should improve their performance on that test by at least 3 percent each year.
For Connecticut – where one of every 10 public school students speaks Spanish as his or her primary language – academic achievement gaps between Hispanic students and their white classmates are among the largest in the nation. For those still considered English learners in eighth grade, the gap between them and their classmates in the ability to understand and use English is the worst in the country.
“It is our English learners who have lagged in all of our achievement over the last six years in education in Connecticut,” state education commissioner Dianna Wentzell said during an interview. “And that is not acceptable to us.”
Yet Connecticut has largely failed to embrace the one model for English learners that research consistently shows works best by far.
At Rigler Elementary School in Portland, Ore., Risa Muñoz’s fifth-graders are expected to speak in English for the first half of the day and in Spanish for the second half of the day.
On a recent afternoon shortly after returning from recess – where students get to pick which language they use – Muñoz was asking students in Spanish during a history lesson on World World II to come up with a list of rules to determine what portions of an article were factual and which were propaganda.
“I know,” responded a student in English, eagerly shooting his hand in the air.
Muñoz gave the student a puzzled look but didn’t call on him.
“Lo sé,” he quickly said.
“Si,” she responded, and listened to him answer her question in Spanish.
Schools where classes are taught in both English and another language are common throughout Portland. Those who speak limited or no English attend class with native English speakers whose parents are eager for them to reap the social and economic advantages of learning another language.
The approach is called “dual-language.”
In Connecticut, students are more likely to be put in traditional classrooms and be given supports ranging from 30 minutes of weekly tutoring to help from a teacher’s aide in the classroom, who may or may not speak the student’s native language.
About a quarter of the state’s English learners are in bilingual programs of varying quality where instruction is supposed to begin in a student’s native language and transition to mostly English within the school year. With few exceptions, the longest a student can stay in such a program is 30 months, and thousands leave each year without achieving proficiency.
In Portland, one out of every five kindergarten students was enrolled in a dual-language program. Among the youngsters who showed up for school speaking limited or no English this school year, 42 percent were enrolled in one of the district’s 15 dual-language programs for kindergarteners.
Portland’s goal is to continue expanding dual-language programs until three-quarters of English learners are splitting their days between instruction in their native language and English. Young programs will add additional grades as students who started in kindergarten move up, and district officials hope to open new programs in three schools over the next two school years, bringing the program to 18 of the district’s 57 elementary schools.
Students stay in the program through high school.
Over the last nine school years, the number of students enrolled in one of the district’s dual-language programs – now offered in Spanish, Mandarin, Japanese, Russian and Vietnamese – has jumped from 2,540 to 5,020, about 10 percent of the district’s 50,000 students.
“We have been able to expand opportunity by expanding programs,” Debbie Armendariz, Portland’s senior director of dual language, said during an interview. “We have been communicating to parents in our entire community what this program means for English-language learners – which is that this is their only path toward academic success. That is not true for our native English speakers.”
In Connecticut, fewer than 2,000 of the state’s 539,000 students are enrolled in dual-language programs, including just 4 percent of the state’s English learners, a rate that hasn’t budged over the last decade. Some last only through second grade, while others run through elementary school.
Muñoz, who previously worked in a school district where she taught Spanish-speaking students in English, has seen the impact of dual language during her three years at Rigler.
“I see a difference in confidence, in pride about their culture and their language, and I think it’s a great way to build biliteracy,” Muñoz said. “It really is a key piece in closing our achievement gaps for our culturally and linguistically diverse students.”
Muñoz said the dual-language approach bolsters proficiency in both a student’s native language and the one he or she is trying to learn.
“When we think about our native-Spanish speakers, if we are able to build their language skills, we really see those skills transfer over to English. If they have a strong foundation, they are able to succeed in both languages,” she said.
Research done on the district’s approach by outside experts amplifies her points.
Research published in April in the American Educational Research Journal and in September in Foreign Language Annals tracked students in kindergarten through eighth grade who won dual-language seats through Portland’s school choice lottery. The researchers found that English reading skills improved much faster for English learners in the dual-language programs than for those who had to attend English-only classes with other supports.
By Grade 5, Portland’s English learners in dual-language programs were seven months ahead of peers in academic achievement, and by Grade 8 they were a full grade level ahead. There was no significant difference in performance in math or science, but dual-language students were 14 percent less likely to still be considered English learners by Grade 6.
“You couldn’t ask for better outcomes for these English learners,” said Robert Slater, one of the co-authors of the research.
Native-English speakers who participated in a dual-language program performed about the same academically as their peers in traditional programs. But they also learned a second language, and Portland has a long waiting list of students whose parents are eager for them to become bilingual.
Slater’s study, funded by the U.S. Department of Education’s research arm, is highly regarded among experts because it looked at students assigned to programs randomly through the lottery.
Elizabeth Howard, an associate professor of bilingual education at the University of Connecticut’s Neag School of Education, characterized the gains English learners made in the Portland study as “huge.”
Howard has synthesized the mountains of research on various approaches to closing achievement gaps for English learners and says there is no question that dual language, when carried out with fidelity, is the best approach.
“Numerous small scale and major studies prove and reprove the effectiveness of dual language,” she said during an interview.
A review by the U.S. Department of Education and American Institutes for Research found “a growing body of research also suggests that the approach provides more opportunities for ELs to reach higher levels of academic achievement as well as more positive motivation and a sense of identity.”
Virginia P. Collier and Wayne P. Thomas, researchers and professors emeritus from George Mason University who spent the last three decades studying programs for English learners in dozens of school districts throughout the U.S., are more pointed in their assessment of dual-language programs.
“This is not just a research report, this is a wake-up call,” the duo began a 2004 article in the National Association of Bilingual Education Journal of Research and Practice. Summarizing their research in five school districts, they wrote, “We have been truly amazed at the elevated student outcomes resulting from participation in dual-language programs.”
“Dual-language schooling closes the academic achievement gap… This is the only program for English learners that fully closes that gap,” their research concludes.
In Houston, a 2009 study of native Spanish-speakers found that by eighth grade, they were reading in the 75th percentile in English, on average, an accomplishment Collier and Thomas characterized as “dramatically high.” In math, students in dual-language programs had similar outcomes.
“These analyses of [standardized test] results demonstrate that Hispanic students are staying on or close to grade level in both languages, and if continuing instruction is provided in both Spanish and English, the large majority will graduate proficiently bilingual,” they wrote, adding these students also have much lower dropout rates and higher attendance rates.
Their research in North Carolina from 2009 found that students in dual language programs “are often at least one grade level ahead” of the English learners who did not attend a dual-immersion program. It also has significantly narrowed gaps in achievement.
Bilingual brains: The benefits
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For those who do, neuroscience says bilingualism provides benefits both in the classroom and throughout life.
Research shows bilingualism affects mostly the frontal lobe of the brain, which houses its executive function – managing inputs, focusing on what is relevant and ignoring distractions. What that means is those who are bilingual are apt to be better at problem solving, multi-tasking, and focusing and filtering relevant information.
Naja Ferjan Ramirez, a research scientist at the University of Washington’s Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences, sums up what’s going on up there as “gymnastics for the brain’s air traffic control.”
“You have to constantly inhibit one language to turn on the other language,” she explained during an interview.
Ellen Bialystok, a professor of psychology and chair of the Lifespan Cognitive Development Lab at Canada’s York University, said, “We know from enormous amouts of research that developing the executive function in children is the most important thing they do, by far.”
“When a student’s brain has trouble prioritizing inputs, it leads to problems with behavior and attention,” she said. “It’s why they can’t sit still. It’s something they need and must develop to learn.”
Being able to understand two languages doesn’t necessarily solve a child’s issues, but it does improve them, says Bialystok.
“The more bilingual children were, the better they were at intentional control,” she said, summing up a recent study she completed. “They are doing better than they would be doing if not for bilingualism.”
Though one can always learn a second language, research is mixed on how long the “critical period” for learning a second language lasts, ranging from 5 to 15 years of age.
“The brain is really the most prepared to learn language at birth, and then slowly, over time, this ability to learn two languages at the same time, it fades. It fades really early on,” said Naja Ferjan Ramírez, whose research shows that infants as young as 11 months are able to process whatever languages they are exposed to.
Bilingualism also has benefits as people age. Research has shown that bilinguals were able to respond more quickly to demanding circumstances and that it helps delay age-related losses in certain executive processes. It also delays the onset of Alzheimers, research shows.
Who can learn another language?
In both Portland and Connecticut, however, which students get to enroll in a dual-language program – and have the best chance to learn another language – is based on luck.
In Portland, dozens of kindergarten students who speak limited or no English, lose the lottery to get into a language immersion program each year.
And in Bridgeport, just 217 of the district’s nearly 3,000 students who struggle with English are enrolled in dual-language programs.
Fran Rabinowitz, who was the leader of Bridgeport Public Schools from 2013 to 2016, said during a recent interview that she tried to expand dual language programs in the district and was somewhat successful. But, she added, “I am not sure everyone buys into that approach.”
Coming next week: In Connecticut there are shortcomings aplenty in bilingual education, yet dual-language instruction has made little headway, and some programs actually have been shut down.
The Mirror’s exploration of ways to close persistent gaps in educational achievement is supported in part by a grant from the Solutions Journalism Network and the Nellie Mae Foundation. View more of the projects they have funded here. The Connecticut Mirror retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.