Most of the students in Molly Smith’s kindergarten class hear a language other than English as they get out of bed, sit down for breakfast and strap on their backpacks before heading to Tusculum Elementary School on Nolensville Road. Maybe they catch the Spanish for “goodbye” or Burmese for “I love you” as they head out for the day.
Yet here they are at 8:30 a.m. on a typical Tuesday, a largely minority classroom with a few white students intermingled, all sitting together on a wide square of carpet, eyes glued to their instructor. Together, the entire group — whether a child was born in Mexico, Burma or the United States — are all engaged in those crucial first lessons to learn how to read the English language, the building blocks established in one’s formative years that educators say are critical in determining a student’s long-term mastery of reading, writing and communication skills.
Smith, young and energetic, sits low to the ground in a child-sized chair, a flip chart at her side. Leaning toward her students as she speaks, she has no trouble grabbing the attention of a remarkably well-behaved classroom. On this morning, she’s already written out eight short sentences on her board — the most her students have ever covered in one day.
“Today is Tuesday, January 25, 2011,” the top sentence reads. It’s followed by “We will go to Art today with Mrs. Knotts.”
A dry-erase marker in her hand, Smith points to the capital letter denoting the beginning of the first sentence. “Go, go, go, go,” she shouts, underlining the words before halting at the period. “Stop,” Smith says. Then she performs the same exercise on the next phrase. Students take turns circling what they call “popcorn words,” a memorable label to describe the new terms recently added to their vocabularies.
The lesson turns to colors. “Mohammed, what color is this?” Smith asks, holding up one of her pens.
Mohammed stares blankly. He can’t find the right word. But his peers, hands raised, are happy to help. “Black,” they say in unison, prompting Mohammed to chime in as well. Now he understands.
Not long ago, the class setting at Tusculum looked different. And the change is more than just the product of Nashville’s well-documented multicultural growth following Davidson County’s influx of Mexican and refugee groups over the past 15 years.
New this year, Metro Nashville Public Schools fully integrated elementary students who have limited English proficiency with traditional students of English-language backgrounds. The academic term for this steadily growing demographic, those with limited English skills, are English Language Learners. And at a school like Tusculum, where this is about two-thirds of the student population, the effect has been profound. Last year, Tusculum’s English learners carried out their studies in self-contained classrooms, interacting with the rest of the student body only during art, music and physical education classes. Today — as in Smith’s class and other elementary classrooms across the district — they are in general education classes taught by those licensed to teach English as a second language. Middle and high school students still take special English language developmental classes apart from their peers but commingle in other courses.
Embracing inclusion, and steering away from isolation at the elementary level, is just one shift in the district’s ongoing innovations to improve the way public schools — elementary, middle and high — address the needs of English learners, a group that’s proved central to Metro’s inability to meet federal No Child Left Behind benchmarks since the law’s inception.
With a new executive director of the district’s Office of English Learners in place, Metro schools are stressing the importance of teaching English learners their new language through other subjects, trying to foster a cultural change whereby the entire district feels accountable for English learners, and enabling English learners to attend schools closer to home.
There are no easy ways around the complex matter of educating kids in the U.S. who lack basic English skills. But it’s an issue that has fast become one of the greatest callings for a Southern school system that critics still label as failing.
A greater challenge
Nowhere in Tennessee is the challenge of educating a diverse, non-English-speaking population more pronounced than Nashville. In fact, nowhere else is even close.
According to the most recent data, 22 percent of Metro’s 78,400 students have a non-English language background. Next on the list of Tennessee’s school systems is Memphis City Schools, with just 8 percent. Though Memphis’ enrollment is more than 30,000 students greater than Metro’s, it has half as many students with non-English backgrounds.
“One of the challenges is that we’re so different from everyone else in the state,” Director of Schools Jesse Register said. “We’ve got about 30 percent of the English learner population in the state of Tennessee. We’re pretty much alone in being that diverse and having that large a population. So there’s not a lot of other districts that understand what we’re doing there. So, it makes it a little bit different.”
In Metro, 13 percent of the total student body has limited English proficiency, and 10 percent are considered active English learners. In just the past year, Metro’s English-learner subgroup increased by 800 students. The vast majority of English learners are also economically disadvantaged, qualifying for the federal free and reduced lunch program. The Overton High School cluster, which includes Tusculum elementary, has the largest English-learner population, followed closely by the Glencliff High School cluster. Both are fed by highly diverse neighborhoods of southern Davidson County.
There are nearly 100 native languages represented in the halls of Metro schools. More than 10,600 students speak Spanish, and nearly 1,800 come from homes where Arabic is the primary spoken language. Next on the list are Kurdish, Somali and Vietnamese, respectively.
None of these students receive instruction in their native language. State law has what amounts to an “English-only” edict when it comes to classroom instruction. When a teacher receives a license to teach English learners, being bilingual isn’t a requirement. English learners are required to receive at least one hour of direct services. But whether an English learner is immersed in an elementary school setting or isolated in a high school developmental language class, their instruction comes in English.
“It’s not a matter of whether you’re teaching them in their native language,” Register said, alluding to both the state law and the integrated model adopted in elementary schools. “It’s a matter of whether they’re incorporated into classrooms with kids who primarily speak English. I think that’s a good transition for us to make. I do think we were probably erring too far the other way, but now I think we’re getting very much on target, on course.
“We just have to understand that it takes a little bit longer when you’re teaching children how to speak English and getting them to pass a test at the same time,” he said.
Therein lies one of the district’s biggest problems. No Child Left Behind — which President Obama and Congress might soon begin to overhaul — gives Metro’s English-learner newcomers a one-year grace period before they are subject to its proficiency standards. Almost universally, Nashville educators object to the short time frame. This year’s test results, released three weeks ago, showed that students with limited English proficiency missed benchmarks at the K-8 level in both math and reading/language arts. In high school, English learners fell short on reading/language proficiency standards.
English learners, who tend to move often, also fall short when it comes to graduation. While their rate last year was only 1.5 percent lower than the 83 percent overall, officials are bracing for that to drop by as much as half as new standards are enacted requiring them to graduate in four years rather than five, as it is now.
“What I see happening with the English-learner population is that they’re learning a lot, they’re learning how to speak English and they’re learning content, too,” Register said. “There’s just more to learn, and the flexibility of time is not as great as what I would like to see before we start being held accountable for them [passing] standardized tests based on No Child Left Behind standards.”
Register has highlighted the performance of the district’s English-learner population in one of the his nine “Transformational Leadership Groups,” which are part of a broader effort to engineer a turnaround at Metro schools. Each group covers a different topic, and representatives of each have made presentations at school board meetings over the past several months. The English-learner group unveiled its progress in December.
Many of the new philosophies in addressing Metro’s English learners come from a recent study by George Washington University, which worked with the Appalachia Regional Comprehensive Center and the Tennessee Department of Education. The document, exhaustive like most academic reports, could become the roadmap for reforming the English-learner program in the future.
Listed atop recommendations is to integrate English learning on all levels. The appraisal reads: “One of the most common misconceptions among educators of ELLs is the assumption that students who have not yet mastered English are not capable of high-level thinking.”
In an interview with The City Paper, Nicole Chaput-Guizani, who oversees Metro’s program, stressed the ongoing effort to alter curriculum to ensure English learners are “taught content at the same time as language domains.” So far, the process has begun in middle schools, with high schools to follow.
“It makes sense, but it wasn’t something that was focused on before,” Chaput-Guizani said. “Now we’re really focused on it.”
A native of Massachusetts with a background in accounting, Chaput-Guizani worked her way up in the office she now manages, first as an English language development specialist — coaching teachers — and later the interim executive director. The interim label was removed last summer. Register considers her part of the district’s reform.
Chaput-Guizani, whose office is in a separate building near the district’s administrative headquarters on Bransford Avenue, talks about breaking down the “silos” that have historically contained various education departments when it comes to teaching English learners. For example, if a teacher is working on a social studies project for English learners, the lesson plan should come from a collaboration between the Office of English Learners and leaders of the social studies content area. The professional development of English-learner teachers needs to happen through that same partnership. She said there’s also an effort to share best practices between her department and the heads of special education, as well as leaders of the district’s elementary, middle and high schools.
“The collaboration is really important, not only because it helps teachers put the pieces together, but also as a district to say, ‘We’re all accountable for these English-learners. It’s not just the EL office. It’s every teacher, every principal, every administrator in the district who is accountable for the success of our English learners and their families,’ ” she said. “And that’s happening. It’s really exciting.”
Another major departure from tradition is the ongoing effort to enable English learners to attend schools closer to home. In the past, they’ve often had to ride buses across town to reach a school with ESL-licensed teachers. The district has already started expanding English-learner services to mores schools, and only about 130 English learners today remain enrolled in schools outside their zones. By next year, all English learners are expected to attend schools within their zones.
“This is huge,” Chaput-Guizani said. “Next year, every student will be able to receive services at their neighborhood school, which is important for parent outreach.”
Now, Metro’s 43 translators serve as the primary liaison between schools and parents who lack English proficiency. They don’t translate coursework for students, but rather communicate things like report cards, letters, notes and messages from teachers back to students’ homes.
Chaput-Guizani said district officials hope to create a multicultural outreach program, modeled on a similar approach in Denver, where smaller, Metro-backed focus groups — Spanish- or Arabic-speaking, for instance — could work with individual families. She said she’s working with Metro’s communications team to make this happen, but acknowledged it’s in the “very early planning stages.”
“Right now, we’re doing what we can,” Chaput-Guizani said. “We have our 43 translators. We try to translate as much as we can in different languages, but us translating something in writing isn’t necessarily what parents need. Sometimes they need more.”
Through a partnership with Belmont University, the district also plans to take advantage of a $150,000 grant from the state to offer life and literacy training to parents who don’t speak English. One night each week, over the course of two-and-a-half months, parents can go to McMurray Middle School to learn basic things such as using an ATM, conducting a job interview and interacting at a bank. The plan is to bring the program, known as LEAF — Linking, Educating and Advancing Families — to other
clusters in the future.
Such advancements are supposed to help address issues that come naturally with a group that is predominantly poor and generally new to an area.
Diane Chumley, principal at Tusculum for the past six years, said one of the greatest challenges in educating the school’s English-learner population is how often those students move. She said the school’s mobility rate stood at 60 percent last year.
“It means our kids come in and out, in and out,” she said. “Who we start out with in kindergarten and first grade are not even who we end up with by third and fourth grade. We’ve gotten several new kids in this week. We got several new kids in last week. They just move back and forth.
“In reality, I think a lot of it is the economically disadvantaged [factor],” she said. “They move to different apartments where they can afford to live. And then a lot of them will say, ‘I’m going to go back to Mexico for a month. I have a family emergency.’ Well, then they miss a month of school.”
Chumley said her English-learner students are often sidetracked by long winter breaks and even longer summer recesses spent outside the classroom. She said
test scores in August are never as high as the previous May.
“They don’t keep what they’ve learned,” she said. “I feel like we take five steps forward, two steps back, five steps forward, two steps back. I think it’s just due to the fact that it’s such a long time that they go back home. No one speaks English, so they all of sudden don’t have any vocabulary spoken to them that we’ve been trying to teach them.”
Cesar Muedas, a standard presence at school board meetings who served on Mayor Karl Dean’s Project for Student Success and also applied for the position held by Chaput-Guizani, said he believes Metro’s English-learner services have made “incredible progress” in the past five years. He said he recalls a period when “schools would
do everything in their power not to receive ELL students.”
“That doesn’t happen now,” Muedas said. “That’s a very good thing that Mr. Register is doing. Now the philosophy is, wherever there is an ELL student, the school that he’s zoned for will serve the student.”
In general, Muedas said the district has also improved in addressing the needs of English learners.
“There’s a more proactive evaluation of who needs the services and how early, which was not happening before,” he said. “Between three or five years ago, there was a clear change in the philosophy and the approach. The recruitment of teachers
improved. The services improved. And within the last two years, the ELL department
has been looking outside the state for new methods and programs.”
Where it lags, Muedas said, is funding. He wonders why the English-learner population can’t galvanize the public’s attention for fundraising the way special education has.
“The money that comes directly from the standard budget is not enough,” he said. “The example to follow is special education. … There’s a lot of fundraising going on for special education. There are dozens of nonprofits that directly or indirectly do fundraising to benefit special education students. That doesn’t happen with ELL.”
Though No Child Left Behind creates a narrative that suggests failure, Juan Canedo, executive director of Nashville’s Progresso Community Center, said there’s an “exaggerated” notion that English-learner students aren’t making progress in learning English.
“Children, particularly through our community organization, we have seen children speaking English quite well,” Canedo said. “It takes them several months, even years, but some kids start English perfectly. I think that shows that this has been working.
“It’s a process, obviously,” he said of the changes Metro schools needs to implement
to make greater gains. “I think the step by step way they’re approaching this, the outreach to ELL parents and students, I think it’s beginning to create an example to solve this unique situation.”