Newcomers

This mom came to the newcomer school ready to stand up for son. She left with a job.

PHOTO: Provided by Javier Barrera Cervantes
Charlotte Uwimbabazi is a bilingual assistant at the Indianapolis Public Schools newcomer program.

When Charlotte Uwimbabazi showed up at Indianapolis Public Schools’ program for new immigrants, she was ready to fight for her son. When she left that day, she had a job.

A native of the Congo, Uwimbabazi fled the war-torn country and spent nearly a decade in Cape Town, South Africa waiting for a new home. Last spring, Uwimbabazi and her four children came to the U.S. as refugees.

(Read: Teaching when students are full of fear: Inside Indiana’s first school for new immigrants)

When the family arrived in Indianapolis, Uwimbabazi’s youngest son Dave enrolled at Northwest High School. But he wasn’t happy, and a volunteer helping to resettle the family suggested he transfer to Crispus Attucks High School. When the school year started, though, Crispus Attucks turned him away. Staff there said he had been assigned to the newcomer program, a school for students who are new to the country and still learning English.

There was just one problem: Dave was fluent in English after growing up in South Africa. Uwimbabazi said it’s the only language he knows. So Uwimbabazi and her son Dave headed to the newcomer school to convince them he should attend Crispus Attucks.

That’s when Jessica Feeser, who oversees the newcomer school and programing for IPS students learning English, stepped in — and found a new resource for the district’s growing population of newcomer students.

Feeser immediately realized that Dave was fluent in English and should enroll in Crispus Attucks. Then, Uwimbabazi started talking with Feeser about her own experience. With a gift for languages, Uwimbabazi speaks six fluently, including Swahili and Kinyarwanda, languages spoken by many African students at the school.

“Where are you working right now?” Feeser asked. “Would you like a job here?”

Uwimbabazi, who had been packing mail, took a job as a bilingual assistant at the school. Her interaction with the district went from “negativity to positivity,” she said.

The newcomer program has seen dramatic growth in enrollment since it opened last fall, and it serves about three dozen refugee students. Students at the school speak at least 14 different languages. As the only staff member at the school who speaks Swahili and Kinyarwanda, Uwimbabazi is a lifeline for many of the African refugees it serves, Feeser said.

She works alongside teachers, going over material in languages that students speak fluently and helping them grasp everything from simple instructions to complex concepts like graphing linear equations, Feeser said. She also helps bridge the divide between the district and the Congolese community on Indianapolis’ westside, going on home visits to meet parents and helping convince families to enroll their children in school.

When students in the newcomer program don’t share a language with staff members, the school is still able to educate them, Feeser said. But it is hard to build community without that bridge. Uwimbabazi has played an essential role in helping the school build relationships with families.

“She believes that all of our families are important, and she’s working diligently to make sure that they feel that their voices are heard,” Feeser said. “It was a gift from God that she joined us.”

language learning

Westminster district signs agreement to better serve students learning English

Students work on an English assignment at M. Scott Carpenter Middle School in Westminster. (Photo by Nic Garcia)

Teachers in Westminster schools will get new training for educating students who are learning English as a second language, and the district will have to create a way to evaluate how they are providing that education.

Those are just two of a long list of changes the district will make after the superintendent signed a settlement agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice to change the way Westminster Public Schools educates students who are identified as English language learners.

The settlement agreement is the result of a federal investigation in which the U.S. Department of Justice claimed the district was in violation of non-discrimination laws. According to a brief summary online, federal officials, “examined whether the district was identifying and serving its English learner students in compliance with the Equal Educational Opportunities Act,” and entered into the agreement “to resolve the District’s noncompliance” and “ensure that (English learner) students receive the support they need to succeed.”

The original complaint was not immediately available. The agreement also notes that the district disputed the claims and argued its schools were in compliance with the law.

School district officials were not available to comment on the agreement.

Other districts in the region have had issues with the federal government related to educating English learners. Adams 12 officials signed a settlement agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice in 2010. The Adams 14 district reached a settlement agreement in 2014 after an investigation by the U.S. Department of Education. Denver Public Schools has been under a court-ordered agreement for more than 30 years.

In the current school year, about 40 percent of Westminster’s almost 9,500 students are identified as English learners. The agreement, however, suggests that the district might not have properly identified all the students who need English language services.

As a whole, the Westminster district has struggled academically on state criteria. The district was one of the first to face state accountability hearings last year and was put on a state-ordered plan to show improvement.

In the latest round of state test data, the Westminster district was one of the only districts in the metro area where English language learners had worse growth scores than native English speakers in both math and English. In the previous round, there was no gap in growth scores on English tests.

When it comes to graduation rates, the district’s English learners outpace the district overall. In 2017, for instance, 59.3 percent of students who speak limited English graduated in four years, compared to 57.8 percent of all district students. Looking at six-year graduation rates, the district’s English learners also outpace the state’s English learners.

Among the most detailed changes in the settlement agreement are changes to how teachers are trained to work with students who speak a language other than English.

The agreement states that “all English language development instruction will be provided by a CLDE-endorsed teacher or one who is “on-track” to complete” the state certification.

According to data provided by the district in December, 83 district staff members at that point had that state certification to teach culturally or linguistically diverse students. The district has more than 1,000 staff members including about 500 teachers. The agreement lays out a timeline for when teachers must complete the certifications, when the district must revise their internal training for new teachers and when they must complete their training program for existing teachers.

The training materials for those programs must be submitted to the federal government for review within 60 days of the agreement.

Some of the other requirements laid out in the agreement:

  • Within 45 days, the district must identify students who after five years of services have not yet become fluent in English, and must ask the parents whether they want their children to get additional help.
  • The district will have to train employees to review whether parents need translation services, and will train them on how to explain to parents how they may get access to qualified interpreters.
  • Except in an emergency, the district is not to use students, family, or friends of parents for interpretation or translation services.
  • The district must review its procedures for identifying students who are English learners — including students who are new to the country, and students who are long-term English learners — and must review files of all students enrolled in the district during the last four years to find students who might have qualified as English learners and who weren’t tested or identified.
  • The district must also staff each school with a specialist with a state endorsement for teaching culturally and linguistically diverse students, including at the district’s Colorado STEM Academy and Westminster Academy for International Studies, in order to “provide an equal and meaningful opportunity for (English learners) to apply” and participate in the schools.

Read the full agreement below.



pre-k for all

New York City will add dual language options in pre-K to attract parents and encourage diversity

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Schools Chancellor Carmen FariƱa, back right, visits a Mandarin pre-K dual language program at P.S. 20 Anna Silver on the Lower East Side.

Education Department officials on Wednesday announced the addition of 33 dual language pre-K programs in the 2018-19 school year, more than doubling the bilingual opportunities available for New York City’s youngest learners.

The expansion continues an aggressive push under the current administration, which has added 150 new bilingual programs to date. Popular with parents — there were 2,900 applications for about 600 pre-K dual language seats last year — the programs can also be effective in boosting the performance of students who are learning English as a new language.

Another possible benefit: creating more diverse pre-K classrooms, which research has shown are starkly segregated in New York City.

Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña said the new programs reflect the city’s commitment to serving all students, even as a national debate rages over immigration reform.

“It’s important to understand that immigrants or people who speak a second language are an asset,” Fariña said. She called bilingual education “a gift that I think all schools should have.”

Included in the expansion are the city’s first dual language pre-K programs in Bengali and Russian, which will open in Jamaica, Queens, and the Upper West Side, Manhattan, respectively. The other additions will build on programs in Spanish, Mandarin and Italian. Every borough is represented in the expansion, with 11 new programs in Manhattan, nine in Brooklyn, six in Queens, five in the Bronx, and two on Staten Island.

In the dual-language model, students split their time between instruction in English and another language. At P.S. 20 Anna Silver, where the recent expansion was announced, pre-K students start the morning in English and transition to Mandarin after nap time. Experts say the model works best when the class includes an equal mix of students who are proficient in each language so they can learn from each other as well as the teacher, though it can often be difficult to strike that balance.

Officials and some advocates view dual-language programs as a tool for integration by drawing middle-class families eager to have their children speak two languages into neighborhood schools that they otherwise may not have considered. Research has shown that New York City’s pre-K classrooms tend to be more segregated than kindergarten. In one in six pre-K classrooms, more than 90 percent of students are from a single racial or ethnic background. That’s compared with one in eight kindergarten classrooms, according to a 2016 report by The Century Foundation.

Sharon Stapel, a mother from Brooklyn, said she knew early on that she wanted her daughter to learn another language and strike relationships across cultures. So she travels to the Lower East Side with her four-year-old, Finch, to attend the Mandarin dual-language pre-K program at P.S. 20 Anna Silver. On Wednesday, the city announced it will add a Spanish dual language program at the school.

“We really see it as how you build community with your neighbors and your friends,” Stapel said. “It was also an opportunity for Finch to become involved and engage in the cultures and in the differences that she could see in the classrooms — and really celebrate that difference.”

Citywide, about 13 percent of students are learning English as a new language. That number does not include pre-K since the state does not have a way to identify students’ language status before kindergarten. However, based on census data, it is estimated that 30 percent of three- and four-year-olds in New York are English learners.

Dual-language programs can benefit students who are still learning English — more so than English-only instruction. Nationally and in New York City, students who are learning English are less likely to pass standardized tests and graduate from high school. In one study, students who enrolled in dual-language courses in kindergarten gained the equivalent of one year of reading instruction by eighth grade, compared with their peers who received English-only instruction.

The city has been under pressure to improve outcomes for English learners. Under the previous administration, New York City was placed on a state “corrective action plan” that required the education department to open 125 new bilingual programs by 2013. Though the city fell short of that goal, the current administration has agreed to place every English learner in a bilingual program by the 2018-19 school year.

Among the greatest barriers to achieving that is finding qualified teachers, Fariña said. In some cases, it can be hard to find teachers who are fluent in the target language. In others, teachers who are native in a foreign language may only be certified in their home country, and it can be hard to transfer that certification to New York.

In order to open an Urdu program recently, Fariña said, the teacher, who holds a degree from another country, went through Teaching Fellows, an alternative certification program that usually caters to career-changers or recent college grads.

“I think the biggest challenge we have right now is ensuring our teacher preparation courses are keeping up with our need and demand for teachers who can teach another language,” she said.