Editor’s note: The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the disparities experienced by communities of color. Perhaps no group of students have been impacted as significantly as students who speak and read little English. This story highlights the breadth of the disparity faced by young English learners in Connecticut – and a potential path forward to begin narrowing these achievement gaps when school resumes.
Instead of going home at the end of each school day, dozens of students would head to Kiria Cruz Wang’s classroom at Harding High School in Bridgeport for a quick snack and two hours of tutoring.
They were desperate to learn English.
It was the only tutoring available, even though one-in-three students at the school read and speak so little English they have been labeled “English Learners.” Students were also provided access to online programs to help them learn English outside of school hours.
This tutoring program lasted two years before state funding ran out last year.
“We really don’t have anything right now for them because we don’t have funds,” Cruz explained during an interview shortly before schools closed because of the pandemic. “They can enroll in the different clubs at the school. But because of the language (barrier), many of the students just go straight home.”
Bridgeport is at the epicenter of the state’s failure to narrow its largest-in-the-U.S. achievement gap between English learners and their classmates. And unless something changes, most of these students are not expected to become proficient in English anytime soon.
At Harding, just one in seven English-learner students are on the path to be proficient in English within five years, according to the “growth targets” the State Department of Education has outlined for how much these students need to learn each year. Statewide, that number is one in three.
Miguel Cardona, the state’s first Hispanic education commissioner, who entered kindergarten years ago only speaking Spanish, didn’t hold back earlier this year when asked whether the state is doing a good job educating these students: “Not good enough. Not good enough. We have to focus on that more.”
On the day he and Gov. Ned Lamont announced school buildings would have to remain closed due to the pandemic, the commissioner seemed crushed about what it would mean for English learners and others he knew would struggle to access online and remote learning.
“The inequities have really come to the surface,” he said. “The impact that that’s going to have – it will last generations.”
Legislative leaders are paying attention to the education English learners are being provided, both before and during COVID-19.
They were baffled when Gov. Ned Lamont’s proposed state budget, released in February, raided the $1.3 million paying for tutors, instructional materials and professional development for teachers in Bridgeport, Hartford, New Haven and Windham instead of continuing to fund these services. This would leave just $1.9 million in state aid dedicated to bilingual programs for nearly 44,000 English learners.
“Our bilingual education is woefully undermanned and addressed,” state Rep. Toni Walker, D-New Haven and the co-chair of the legislature’s powerful budget-writing committee, told Cardona during a public hearing before lawmakers suspended the legislative session in March. “It is important that everybody gets an opportunity at a solid education. … We need to make sure we are funding the services.”
Finding the political will
The number of students with limited English showing up to attend Connecticut’s public schools has skyrocketed in recent years.
Ten years ago, just one student in every 20 was classified as an English learner. Today, that ratio is one in 12.
Certain communities have been impacted more dramatically since these students are disproportionately moving into certain neighborhoods and enrolling in the local neighborhood schools. Five school districts enrolled almost half of the influx of students.
Bridgeport has 1,460 more English learners attending its schools than it did 10 years ago; Danbury 1,447, New Haven 1,191, Norwalk 792, and Waterbury 930.
With this rush came growing frustration about how the state funds and oversees the education being provided to these students, most of whom are Latino.
“We got so fed up, we said, ‘OK, clearly there isn’t a voice, we are going to become a voice by getting organized and creating an organization,” said Madeline Negrón, the chief of academics for Hartford Public Schools who, in 2015, helped create the Connecticut Association of Latino Administrators and Superintendents.
The inequities have really come to the surface. The impact that that’s going to have – it will last generations.”
Cardona, who was the assistant superintendent in Meriden at the time, signed up to be the organization’s vice president.
Drawing attention to this issue was a focus of Cardona’s years before becoming the state’s top education leader.
He has a masters degree in bilingual education and his dissertation in 2011 for the University of Connecticut’s Neag School of Education was titled, “Sharpening the Focus of Political Will to Address Achievement Disparities.”
In it, he outlines his frustration with the “patterns of complacency” for English learners that have led to “institutional predeterminations” for them. His examples: students had limited opportunities to participate in extracurricular activities and access to reading materials in Spanish. District leaders also failed to analyze why these students miss school at higher rates and have not shifted services to align with what experts say is appropriate.
“Without a focused commitment of political will among educational leaders to make the necessary improvements in academic programs, gaps in student achievement will likely persist,” he wrote of English learners in Connecticut. “From my perspective, it seems that the normalization of failure of the ELL students continues to influence practices.”
In 2014, the task force led by Cardona that was setup by the General Assembly to figure out how to close the achievement gap by 2020 released a long list of recommendations. To meet the needs of English learners, the panel found, the state needs to audit what districts are providing and offer them high-quality curriculum and training. But most of the recommendations were never implemented by the state.
Now the state’s education chief, getting this right is personal.
Cardona – who describes himself as, “a goofy little Puerto Rican born in the Yale Acres [public housing] complex in Meriden” – said he had a tough time learning the language when he started school.
“Education is the great equalizer: It was for me,” he told legislators during his confirmation hearing. “Our success as a state will be dependent upon how we support students who are learning English as a second language.”
A path forward
Connecticut education officials know what works to help students learning English blossom.
“The key thing is making sure we provide support in their native language. We don’t want kids to come in, lose their first language while learning a second langue and then three or four years later make it a nice elective in high school,” Cardona told the CT Mirror’s Podcast “Steady Habits.”
“It’s really critical as a state we recognize the assets our English learners have.”
The education department also provides a guide for districts that outlines “proven practices and national research supporting such practices.”
Number one on the list: “Offer long-term bilingual programs for English learners. … English learners in dual language programs far outperform English learners in other programs.”
Gov. Ned Lamont visited a school that has embraced this model in February with Cardona. After getting a briefing with school officials on the dual language approach, he sat with his education commissioner and read a book to one of the classes who split their day learning between English and Spanish.
Asked about his visit, Lamont said during an interview that the bilingual model is impressive.
“It isn’t an either-or, it makes them better in both languages,” the Democrat said. “The results have been very good. … This may be a template we can use in other communities.”
But Connecticut’s school districts have largely failed to embrace this model for English learners, despite research consistently showing it works best – by far.
The “dual-language” approach works like this: classes are taught in both English and another language and the students enrolled are both those who speak limited or no English and native English speakers whose parents are eager for them to reap the social and economic advantages of learning another language.
In recent years, several dual-language programs have closed and just 4% of English learners are enrolled in such programs. Students are instead 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 are sent to the mainstream classroom each year without achieving proficiency.
Time will tell whether Cardona will reverse this trend while at the helm of the education department, but he plans to try and make it easier for districts to embrace this model if they choose.
“This is the best, no question about it,” he said. “Dual language is the best with regard to maintaining native language and learning a new language… Dual language would be ideal, but it’s not easy to implement. It requires significant financial contribution, but also structural changes.”
Over the years, descriptions of what the state has provided to these students have ranged from everything from the “gold standard” to a “dumping ground.”
Rep. Juan Candelaria, D-New Haven, has been expressing concern for years about the quality. In February, he raised it with the state’s education chief, who, after just six months on the job, was before the legislature’s Appropriations Committee for the first time.
I am worried. You know the state is encouraging more districts to open these type of programs, but it will require support and funds that will help us to recruit and retain the best quality teachers. It can be really challenging.”
“I am a little bit concerned,” he said of districts pushing children into mainstream classrooms when they really need bilingual education. “Bilingual education is supposed to ensure that our English learners speak the English language. But trying to avoid that puts a different spin on the situation and a hardship on these students.”
But one of the biggest issues with embracing a bilingual model is finding qualified staff to teach it. Few students are graduating college in these fields. Over each of the last five years, the state certified between 13 and 27 recent college graduates or people who moved from out of state to teach bilingual education.
But districts had far more bilingual positions than that to fill.
Daisy Torres, the ELS director for Hartford schools, has several to fill next year since the district is planning to open a dual language program in the South End of the city. This will be the district’s first dual language program to open after all of them closed about 10 years ago.
“I am worried,” she said. “You know the state is encouraging more districts to open these type of programs, but it will require support and funds that will help us to recruit and retain the best quality teachers. It can be really challenging. I do think we need to put more attention on our bilingual education models here in the state.”
The state’s education commissioner agrees, and has secured funding to create and hire a new “Equity in Language” position at the department.
“She will be taking a very close look at the programs that are in the state. Are they research based? Are they quality programs. And how can the agency better poise itself to support districts to develop their practices to meet the needs of English learners,” Cardona said.
For years there has been just one person at the state department of education whose work is specific to English learners. That lone education department employee wrote a candid email in which she warned that if the state probes how local districts are doing, there would be bad news.
“To be fair, I would have to visit schools and with all of that, if I were to be transparent and fair, I would have to report that there are several schools that are NOT providing solid, well researched bilingual education for these students,” Marie Salazar Glowski wrote. “Some days it feels like a totally overwhelming responsibility that I feel as one person who is supposed to be overseeing all matters related to ELS in CT.”
When the education commissioner came before the legislature’s budget-writing committee, lawmakers from both parties sent a message to Cardona about bilingual education: tell your boss we want more, not less, funding for it.
“It’s almost scary,” said Rep. Gail Lavielle, R-Wilton, the minority leader of the Appropriations Committee whose district includes Norwalk, about the amount of state funding for bilingual supports. “I am not worried about the cut. I am worried that there wasn’t more there in the first place. Norwalk is literally exploding with hundreds of children arriving in various waves who are not native English speakers.”
When it comes to funding schools that enroll large numbers of Latinx students, state aid is not coming close to leveling the playing field.
Soon-to-be published research by Bruce Baker, a professor at Rutgers Graduate School of Education, finds that Connecticut has the strongest spending disparities in the U.S.
Individual school districts in Connecticut are also among the most disadvantaged financially in the country. New Britain comes in second place, Bridgeport third and Waterbury 17th for the amount of revenue and poverty the districts have compared to neighboring districts.
“The children they serve, have simply never been given a fair shot at obtaining the resources needed to achieve the common outcome goals with their peers in the surrounding districts. As these districts have become increasingly Latinx, they have become even less able to meet their students’ needs and compete with neighboring districts for high quality teachers and staff, “write Baker and Robert Cotto, Jr., a Ph.D. student at UConn and former school board member in Hartford. “The district that spends $15,000 per pupil will have a harder time hiring and retaining the area’s highest-quality teachers and staff than will the neighboring district that spends $20,000.”
Two years ago, the legislature overhauled how it funds education and decided to factor in how many of a districts’ students are English learners when calculating how much to allocate. They also promised to send an additional $400 million to districts over the next 10 years. So far they have followed that schedule.
Lamont points to this increase as proof that the state is doing a good job funding its English learners.
“We improved our funding for all of our most distressed communities,” he said.
There doesn’t seem to be consensus that it resolved the issues, however.
“There are funding constraints,” said Ana Sousa Martin, the director of programs for English learners in Bridgeport on why the district has cut numerous supports for bilingual students when the pilot ran out.
In Hartford, Torres watched as state aid for the bilingual pilot ended. The district made up for the cut.
“We are really stretched trying to provide students with the help they deserve,” she said.
The researchers who evaluated the bilingual programs that Lamont has targeted for funding elimination wrote that when the money runs out, programs either shut down or learning will be forgotten. They found that was the case with these programs.
“There is concern that they may not be able to keep those staff long-term. In addition, there is common interest in providing professional development to more teachers to scale up and even sustain the impact of the pilot,” they wrote.
This story has been supported by the Solutions Journalism Network, a nonprofit organization dedicated to rigorous and compelling reporting on the responses to social problems, through funding from The Barr Foundation, whose mission is to invest in human, natural, and creative potential, serving as thoughtful stewards and catalysts.