By Christina Rose
When the O’Brien STEM Academy in East Hartford, Conn., has an opening for an elementary teaching position, they typically get at least 50 qualified applicants. Sometimes, the administration must wade through well over 100 candidates, allowing them to choose the cream of the crop as their new hire.
Filling a job opening for a bilingual elementary educator, however, has been a different story.
O’Brien Principal Lesley Morgan Thompson said only three people have applied for the position, and only one applicant had a bilingual endorsement.
“This is a critically important position for our school, because we serve many Spanish-speaking students and their families,” she said in an email. “There is a critical need for more bilingual teachers in Connecticut.”
For Latino parents hoping for an excellent bilingual experience for their child, there are things they need to know. Whether a school embraces bilingual education can be the difference between a high school diploma and a high school dropout.
Sixty-percent of Connecticut’s English language learning students who complete four years of English as a second language classes graduate from high school. In some schools, that rate is consistent with the average graduation rate, but nationally that number is very low.
A report by the Connecticut Coalition for Achievement Now (ConnCan), stated that by 2020, more than half of the state’s working population will be non-white. “If we fail to increase graduation rates significantly, especially for students of color, we risk seeing a continued increase in the proportion of children who are not prepared for success in our state—and we put our state’s economic future in peril,” the report said.
In the 2010-11 school year, 97.7 percent of ELL students took the annual English language proficiency assessment. Of those students, 81.6 percent made yearly progress, and 43.9 percent demonstrated English proficiency.
One school made bilingual education a priority, even with minimal funding, by enlisting help from the community.
The MorrisStreetElementary School, the poorest school in Danbury, Conn., saw excellent results by involving parents in the school and allowing students to help other students. Since the local Hispanic community is 60 percent of the school population, the school made a conscious effort to make Latino parents feel welcome. Now, most parents are fully involved in their children’s education, and even adults from a local church volunteer as aides.
The school went from the worst performing school in Danbury “to becoming the miracle school,” according to Principal Bill Santarsiero, in a Danbury Patch interview.
Santarsiero said, “We welcome the parents, we let them know that their voices need to be heard. It’s a neighborhood school, and over time parents have come to know and trust us. They know they don’t have to worry about their (legal) status here. You can’t fake that.”
Marie Salazar Glowski CSDE, an ELL/bilingual consultant for the Connecticut Department of Education, said whether a school has a successful bilingual program depends on its commitment and the school community.
“It can be very effective and successful. If a school is only doing it because it is mandated and they have a small program of eligible students, it is hard to run a great program,” she said.
Having well-trained ELL teachers is critical, Danbury Deputy Superintendent William Glass said.
“Our teachers didn’t know how to teach a kid who didn’t speak English,” he said. To prove it, Glass asked a child direct questions about what he had done that day, had for lunch and would do when he went home. The boy answered all of the questions perfectly, which proved to the teacher that ESL classes were unnecessary.
However, Glass noted, “It takes about three years to (superficially) learn a different language, whether with a teacher or the immersion model.” He added that it takes close to seven years for academic language to develop. “If I said, ‘Tell me the plot and setting of the book you read, how did the tone change, the feeling of the book,’ he’d have no clue.”
When students were failing state tests, Glass said the school district built on information the student already possessed. “New knowledge is based on prior knowledge,” he said. “We have now trained hundreds of teachers in order to be masterful, and we coach teachers while on task.”
Schools are beginning to realize that being bilingual is a benefit in today’s world. Glowski said, “The school community needs to be sensitive to diversity and more important, there has to be a sense of seeing these youngsters as an asset. I can say that dual language programming is very highly regarded and becoming even more positively regarded.”
Dr. Glass said, “We want you to learn English, but we want you to be bilingual. We push hard to maintain languages.”