Indianapolis District bilingual programs on the rise


A group of first and second graders sat cross-legged on a mat, saying words on the flash cards their teacher presented to the class.

“In-tone-these,” they said in unison. “Good.”

Unlike the other students in the school that day who spoke, read and wrote in English, this group was working on their reading skills in Spanish. They were attending the last day of a bilingual summer program in Lawrence Township, part of the strong Spanish-language support system the district has put in place to serve a growing Hispanic population.

Since the 2010-11 school year, Hispanic enrollments in Lawrence have more than doubled, part of an increase in the number of Hispanic residents across the country that has led to a boom in Indianapolis Hispanic students. In the city’s 11 school districts, Hispanic enrollments have increased by nearly 59% over the past decade, and now more than 20% of all students are Hispanic.

To support this community, Lawrence Township has relied on Dual Language, which is based on the theory that teaching young students primarily in their native language will help them learn English faster. The district has added bilingual programs to seven schools, including Harrison Hill, over the past five years.

“It’s an amazing school,” said Sonia Torres, a parent from Harrison Hill whose children are enrolled in the bilingual program. “They help my daughter a lot.

Lawrence is an outlier among Indianapolis districts, most of which offer little to no bilingual education, instead relying on traditional methods of English immersion and removing students from the classroom for private lessons of English. But while each school has its own approach to teaching Spanish speakers, they share one thing in common: serious academic gaps for Hispanic students and English learners.

Only 7.4% of Lawrence English learners in Grades 3 to 8 passed the English and math components of the ILEARN exam in 2019, compared to 31% of non-English speaking learners. Racial differences are also apparent – Hispanic college students lagged their white classmates by 35 percentage points on the tests.

As Indianapolis’ Hispanic population growth shows few signs of slowing down, schools face an important question: how should they adjust curricula and culture to better serve all students and close learning gaps. ?

The case of bilingual education

Patricia Gándara, an education professor at UCLA, said new research over the past five years has clearly shown that bilingual education is more effective than traditional English immersion in teaching English.

“It’s so beneficial in so many ways,” Gándara said. “It just sends a very strong message that what you know in your native language is important.”

Gándara said two-way bilingual programs, which put native English speakers and English learners in the same classroom where they both learn both languages, have been found to be the most effective. Bilingual programs that teach students first in their native language, gradually settling into English as they age, are also more effective than English immersion, she said.

She said it would be a mistake for schools not to offer as many bilingual programs as possible.

In light of this research, Lawrence Township launched additional bilingual programs for English learners at six elementary schools five years ago, and added a second two-way program the following year.

The district already had a popular two-way bilingual immersion program at Forest Glen Elementary School. The new schools would recruit only Spanish speakers, providing Spanish speaking teachers to teach them mainly in their mother tongue during the first years. The district started with kindergarten and first grade classes and then added one grade level per year.

According to the district, about 15% of Lawrence’s English learners, most of whom are Hispanic, are enrolled in bilingual classes. The programs established in 2016 have just started adding fifth graders, and as students progress they outperform their peers in English immersion on ILEARN and other benchmark tests, Troy said. Knoderer, Director of Studies.

“For us that means we have to keep developing our bilingual program because we’re getting better results,” Knoderer said.

Finally, he said the district hopes to provide dual language for all English learners. This is the district’s primary strategy to address its pervasive academic gaps for English learners.

But due to the difficulty of hiring bilingual staff, the full expansion of the program may take some time.

Obstacles for bilingual classes

To teach Spanish speaking students in their native language, you need teachers who speak Spanish. In Indiana, qualified bilingual teachers are scarce.

As the state faces a critical shortage of teachers, most school districts have struggled to fill vacant positions. Add to that the additional requirement of bilingualism, and finding qualified candidates becomes even more difficult.

Erika Tran, language programs coordinator at Lawrence, said it was difficult to attract bilingual teachers to Indiana, especially because more than a dozen programs across the state compete for the same small pool. of candidates.

Tran said the district prefers to hire Hispanic teachers, both because teachers in the bilingual program must be fluent in Spanish and because the district wants teachers ‘ethnicity to reflect students’ identities.

Claudia Gambetta, a bilingual teacher, poses in her classroom at Harrison Hill Elementary School in Lawrence Township. Qualified bilingual teachers like Gambetta are rare in Indiana, which faces a critical shortage of teachers that makes it particularly difficult to find bilingual staff.
Carson TerBush / Chalkbeat

She said the district has gone so far as to recruit educators directly from Spain and Puerto Rico through state-sponsored programs. None of the district’s bilingual teachers are from Indiana, which is particularly lacking in Hispanic educators.

Because of these and other challenges, even administrators who believe that bilingual education would benefit students may be reluctant to start bilingual programs.

Schools in Wayne Township have seen a 77% increase in Hispanic enrollment since 2011. To serve this growing group of Spanish-speaking students, the district has doubled down on traditional English immersion.

As in Lawrence, Wayne English learners have very low ILEARN scores – only 10% were proficient in the English and Math sections in 2019. Students are not so far behind their non-English speaking counterparts, who scored significantly lower. to those of Lawrence – only 26% passed both tests.

Denita Harris, former English Learner’s Program coordinator at Wayne Township Schools, said she knew bilingual education was more beneficial to students than the district’s current model. But even so, the bilingual programs at Wayne will not be happening anytime soon for financial reasons.

“You have to think about, how is that sustainable? Harris said. “You can start something, and it collapses in a year or two. The reality is that when we do something, we want to do it right.

Harris said that although the State Department of Education offers grants to support bilingual programs, the money is short-term. To start a quality program, Wayne would have to commit to finding enough teachers to eventually create a K-12 program, she said. The enormity of these changes discouraged administrators from pursuing bilingual education.

The facade of Harrison Hill Elementary School, a red brick building with a green roof.

Carson TerBush / Chalkbeat

Gándara, the UCLA professor, acknowledged that bilingual education is not a priority for many schools.

“We could definitely produce the teachers we need – if we were serious about it,” she said.

She said schools and universities need to tap into pools of bilingual students and encourage them to continue teaching. In addition, she said schools should offer bilingual students allowances to encourage them to take jobs.

“It’s more important work than the regular teaching class,” she said. “We have to honor that they bring special skills.”

Will dual language bridge academic gaps?

Indianapolis schools test scores show pervasive academic shortcomings for English learners and Hispanic students. But Gándara said these scores offer a narrow view of the success of language programs.

She said that to accurately measure the content comprehension of English learners, especially before the third or fourth grade, standardized tests should assess them in their native language. Because the existing tests all measure English proficiency, they prevent students from showing what they actually know.

“When you put children in an English-only environment, no one is testing them to see what they actually know,” Gándara said. “The assumption is that these are blank slates, we have to start from scratch because you don’t speak English. But these children know a lot.

Gándara added that English learners are first and foremost the children of immigrants. In addition to their lack of fluency in English, they are more likely to be in low income, their parents are less likely to know how the American education system works, and especially during the pandemic they were less likely to have of parents working from home and assisting with virtual learning – all contributing factors to lower test scores.

Rather than focusing on composite standardized test scores, Gándara suggested other measures, such as testing young students as bilingual in their native language and monitoring whether students’ English test scores improve over time.

Regardless of the test results, Sonia Torres, Harrison Hill’s mother, said she liked the way Lawrence’s bilingual program helped her fourth-grade daughter learn English while maintaining her fluency in Spanish. . Her son is entering first grade this year and will also enter a bilingual class.

“I feel like they’re going to have a better future,” Torres said. “They are going to do a great job.

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