Images and video for this story were produced by the Las Cruces Sun-News.
The sign on the door of Claudia Sanchez’s fourth grade class at Mesquite Elementary says “Welcome to Spanish Week.”
The plastic-covered sheet signals to students that this week they’re learning math, science, reading and other subjects in Spanish.
It also signals that this isn’t your typical bilingual classroom.
This is one of Gadsden Independent School District’s dual language immersion classrooms, where students spend half their time in Spanish and the other half in English, and where the goal is not just to become fluent in English, but to become biliterate. In other words, to read, write, listen and speak in two languages.
Gadsden’s bilingual programs have won praise for their consistency and strategic use of data to help their students succeed where others struggle. Of the district’s 16 elementary schools, 12 have earned A’s or B’s from the Public Education Department. That’s more impressive when you consider that nearly 40% of its students are learning English, compared with 14% of students statewide — and the overwhelming majority of its students are low income.
Low income students and English learners are two categories of students that the judge in a landmark 2018 judicial decision, Yazzie/Martinez v. State of New Mexico, excoriated the state for failing to adequately educate.
According to a 2018 report from the Public Education Department, Gadsden has led the state in student improvement in math proficiency on the state’s standardized test since 2015. Its third grade students outperformed the statewide average in both math and English language arts.
While Gadsden has erased the achievement gap for its at-risk students, what is also true is that overall educational achievement in New Mexico is dismal. Despite outpacing New Mexico third-graders in the statewide PARCC exam, only 38% of Gadsden third-graders were deemed proficient in math and 36% proficient in English language arts in 2018. And New Mexico this year was again ranked last in education in the United States.
Advocates say what can help to improve those statistics is education that brings the brain-building advantages of bilingualism to all children by leveraging Spanish and New Mexico’s other heritage languages, including several native ones.
“Our bilingual programs are not just for English learners, they’re for all of our students. That’s something that’s unique to our state,” said Mayra Valtierrez, director of the Language and Culture Bureau at PED.
She said PED’s goal is for all New Mexico students to become bilingual and biliterate.
Given its success, how Gadsden educates English learners in its dual language program could point the way forward for other New Mexico schools grappling with how to reach that goal.
A different teaching philosophy
Strategic teaching differences between transitional bilingual and dual language programs reflect a fundamental difference in philosophy, said Michael Rodriguez, director of operations for Dual Language Education of New Mexico. The organization helps schools and districts in New Mexico and across the country implement dual language programs and co-authored a primer on best practices for dual language education.
The goal for transitional bilingual programs is to move students into English-only instruction, either quickly or more gradually, depending on the program.
Dual language education has three goals: making sure students — whether English learners or English speakers — keep up academically with English-only classes, achieve bilingualism and biliteracy, and become adept at using language in a culturally appropriate manner.
Dual language students retain their native tongue, and learn to read and write in it, all while learning to do the same in a second language like English.
“We’re not giving them the foundation in their native language and then taking it away,” Rodriguez said.
Inside the classroom
Sanchez weaves through her sky-blue cinder block classroom at Mesquite Elementary. This year she has 27 students, and the rows of three desks are crammed together. Every available bit of wall space is covered in art and signs in English and Spanish.
It’s time for math. Using slow, deliberate Spanish, Sanchez explains the concept of rounding numbers up and down to her students. What does it mean to round to the nearest 10? To 100? To the thousands? At the electronic white board, she uses arrows and lines to visually show how numbers are closer or farther away from each other.
One of her students goes to the front of the class to demonstrate how he rounds the number 72 down to 70. Rogelio is English-dominant, and he makes his presentation in barely audible Spanish.
You can spot the signature techniques for teaching dual language in Sanchez’s class.
“Today, my student Gerardo responded in English, and I kind of just redirect them and help them. How would you say it (in Spanish)?” she said.
If that doesn’t work, Sanchez can turn to another student and ask her to help her classmate: “Can you help him say it?”
A key component of dual language is maintaining constancy of the language used at the time. Teachers coach students using visual cues and body language, rather than relying on translation to get the idea across, as would happen in a traditional bilingual classroom.
The next Tuesday, during English week, Sanchez’s students huddle around their social studies books. They’re studying New Mexico history and the instructions on the white board ask them to write and illustrate three facts they learned in their assigned sections.
Kids chatter loudly, some in English, some in Spanish. Others concentrate on their drawings, piles of colored pencils and markers littering their desktops.
“Focus on your partner,” Sanchez admonishes one girl.
She wanders up to a set of students and helps a boy figure out the difference between the words maid and made.
Dual language uses a lot of group work, where students can help each other. That allows children to practice in both languages while learning their subject. It also gives them more language role models. In a regular bilingual class where the majority of students speak Spanish, the teacher might be the only English voice they hear.
Gadsden success: Consistency and data
These days dual language education might be gaining traction nationwide, but it’s been around in Gadsden for nearly 20 years now.
Rodriguez, of Dual Language Education NM, which has been consulting with the district, said there are two hallmarks that underlie Gadsden’s success: consistency and its use of data to improve how it delivers education.
Gadsden Bilingual Programs Director Manuel Leyva explained that the district tests its students every year to identify weaknesses. It employs five bilingual specialists who work with teachers and their coaches to refine classroom strategies.
Creating a curriculum that builds from year to year is also important — that’s where consistency makes a difference, Rodriguez said.
Sanchez, the fourth grade teacher, said not only does she adjust to how her students are progressing using data from tests, she coordinates closely with the English-only fourth-grade teacher to ensure that her students track their peers.
Mesquite Elementary Principal Angela Silvaggio explains how dual language bilingual classes work at her school. (Nathan Fish/Las Cruces Sun News)
What Gadsden doesn’t want to deliver is a watered down version of education for English learners, Leyva said.
The results have been borne out.
The district worked with academics to analyze its testing data. They divided students in their dual language classes into three categories: English natives, English learners and former English learners, essentially bilingual education students who had tested at a Level 5 or above in the ACCESS English proficiency test.
As expected, current English learners were still behind. But they found that students who had been classified as English proficient did as well as — and often better — than their English-only counterparts.
“The kid that only owns one language, he makes his gains, but the kid that had two languages and accomplishes a level 5? We see in these scores relative significance of equal or higher achievement,” said Jose Reyes, a bilingual specialist who has spent nearly 40 years in the Gadsden school district. “To me, that’s significant.”
Still, those who call dual language “the gold standard” of bilingual education might be surprised to learn that Gadsden’s studies found students in its transitional bilingual and dual language programs do equally well.
That backs up the idea that consistent, high-quality bilingual programs will help English learners in New Mexico succeed. Half of the elementary school programs at Gadsden Independent use a transitional bilingual program and half dual language. Leyva said Gadsden Independent has “A” schools using both programs.
“I’d rather have a really well run transitional (bilingual) program than a so-so dual language program,” Reyes said. “And so in order to do the dual language programs at the other eight schools, it’s going to take some study; it’s going to take some commitment from principals; it’s going to take getting the right staff.”
Reyes said the district wants to expand the dual language program for a number of reasons. For one, the district’s school population is changing. There are fewer children of Spanish-speaking immigrants showing up to Kindergarten. Many children they see today have parents who grew up in the local school system. They might only have grandparents who speak Spanish, or have both Spanish and English spoken in the home.
Plus, attitudes are changing. Parents who believed their kids needed to learn English to get ahead are giving way to a newer generation that wants their kids to learn Spanish and remain connected to their culture, Leyva said. And in the global economy, more parents are realizing the benefits of bilingualism. While Gadsden students are almost all Hispanic, its dual language program also serves white and African American students, he said.
The school board and the district wants to meet the changing demand.
Leyva’s team is working to expand the dual language program to one of its middle schools. If that experiment works, he believes the two other middle schools will adopt it, and then it could move up to the high school level.
Despite its success, Gadsden officials said they still face two obstacles to maintaining and improving their programs: a lack of bilingual teachers and a sore lack of academic resources.
The state — along with the nation — has a severe shortage of bilingual teachers. New Mexico State University graduated 18 educators this spring. Only one had a bilingual education endorsement on their degree. None came to Gadsden.
And there are inadequate teaching materials.
“It’s not like we’re not spending the money. The resources just do not exist,” Leyva said.
The district might adopt a great math textbook, but it will have just a small pamphlet that represents the Spanish language adaptation.
Sanchez said she coordinates with the English-only fourth grade teacher, but oftentimes readings available in English won’t be available in Spanish. And the problem for language arts gets worse at each grade level.
The folks at Gadsden see signs of improvement coming from Santa Fe.
PED has made approving bilingual curriculums and textbooks a priority not only for Spanish, but also for tribal languages. New choices will be available starting in summer 2020, the PED’s Valtierrez said. And where the materials aren’t available for Native American tribes and pueblos in things like social studies and history, PED is looking to experts in the state to create them.
“We want to make sure that we provide what is needed for these programs to be set up for success,” Valtierrez said.
As for training the teachers who will educate New Mexico’s biliterate workforce of the PED’s dreams? Well, that’s more of a long-term project. This year, the Legislature approved a couple of scholarship programs to build the pipeline of bilingual teachers. And the department is working with the Higher Education Department on other efforts.
And money for at-risk students — which include Gadsden’s low income and English learners — has been streaming down from Santa Fe, but not as quickly as some had hoped.
“Trickle down,” Reyes corrects. “I was hoping it would stream down, but once it hits the Rio Grande, ya no hay nada.”