St. Paul English learners sent into mainstream, ready or not
Mila Koumpilova, Pioneer Press, April 26, 2014 – Pisey and Monita Pov arrived from Cambodia two years ago knowing only basic English phrases.
This year at St. Paul’s Harding High School, they are charting population growth in biology. Alongside native English speakers in literature class, they are reading novels with “many characters and difficult words,” Pisey said.
In each classroom, the sisters have a pair of teachers: a specialist in the subject and an educator skilled in working with English learners.
The St. Paul district is pushing to get English learners into high school mainstream classes sooner. It has scaled back “sheltered” courses — where these students focus on building language skills — for intermediate English speakers. A third of St. Paul’s almost 39,000 students are learning English, and district leaders say the shift will let youngsters tackle more challenging content on their way to timely graduation.
The district is pairing up language and content teachers in mainstream classes, an approach it pioneered in elementary schools in the 1990s to national accolades. In recent years, more districts in Minnesota and nationally are exploring this co-teaching model amid growing scrutiny of performance gaps for English learners, the fastest-growing student group in this state.
In St. Paul, the effort has drawn criticism from educators and their union. They say the districts is ushering some students into mainstream classes too soon, where they struggle to keep up. They describe a sometimes haphazard rollout and worry a push for on-time graduation is trumping the goal of graduating students prepared.
Experts have cautioned that districts are making the shift amid an influx of Karen refugees and other students with gaps in their formal schooling that make easing into American schools tougher. The family of two St. Paul Karen teens recently filed a complaint with the state about the changes.
St. Paul officials say they have heard the concerns and plan to slow down the changes — but not reverse course.
“We forget the resilience these students bring into our classrooms,” said Efe Agbamu, assistant superintendent of multilingual learning. “Are we going to build on their resilience, or are we going to hug them until we almost stifle them?”
THE CO-TEACHING MODEL
As Pisey and Monita started at Harding last year, the school was launching several classes with paired-up teachers.
Earlier this month, the girls tackled the novel “The Grass Dancer” in 10th-grade English class. About half the students in the class are English learners.
English teacher Lynn Schultz read from the text, pausing often to pepper students with questions about the characters and setting. At the whiteboard in the same classroom, English learner teacher Eugenia Malikin plied the 10th-graders for synonyms of “intimate” and the definition of “invincible.”
Later that day, Pisey and Monita took an elective course paired up with the English class, where Malikin worked to fill gaps in understanding and prep them for the next lesson.
Into the mid-2000s, now-Superintendent Valeria Silva, the English learner director at the time, oversaw a move to co-teaching in the elementary grades. The St. Paul district became one of the first nationally to place new arrivals to the U.S. directly into mainstream classes in a bid to ensure they didn’t fall behind while learning English.
When Agbamu arrived in St. Paul almost three years ago, she found that the touted elementary program had made little headway in the district’s middle and high schools. She set out to change that.
Students who spend years in sheltered classes scramble to catch up on content classes later in high school, she said. Though many sheltered classes cover content such as math, most do not yield the core credits students need to graduate. And jumping into those content classes after several years of sheltered instruction can be a jolting transition, Agbamu says.
Using language proficiency tests, schools identify English learner students in levels from 1 to 6. Under the new St. Paul model, beginning learners, those in Level 1 or 2, would take primarily sheltered classes. Level 3 students would take mostly co-taught content classes. The district has scaled back most language services for those in Level 4 and up, who make up about 40 percent of its English learners.
“We cannot wait until students are totally proficient in English,” Agbamu said. “We’ve got to move the ones who are ready ahead.”
Agbamu says the shift is a move away from a “Let’s protect them” mentality to a renewed focus on the strengths of these students, whom the district now calls “emerging bilinguals.”
There are external pressures, as well: The federal No Child Left Behind law required districts that receive federal English learner funds to set tough achievement goals and report results each year. St. Paul missed those targets from 2008 to 2011, compelling it to tweak its programming.
Meanwhile, districts have faced more scrutiny of their four-year graduation rates in recent years. St. Paul’s graduation rate for English learners has outpaced the state average.
Doug Revsbeck, the Harding principal, says he is heartened by the school’s early experience with the shift. He is working to find ways the school can continue to support students like Pisey and Monita, who are slated to enter the mainstream full time next year.
The transition here is a work in progress. Last year, the co-taught biology class served both English learners and their peers. This year, it is for English learners only, mostly because of higher student numbers. But science teacher Liz Ruhberg also says she and her co-teacher found the wide range of abilities in last year’s mixed class difficult at times.
Schultz, the English teacher, says she is impressed by the way recent arrivals to the country “rose to the challenge” in her class. Her one caveat: She and her co-teacher have no joint planning time this year, so they prepare lessons on their own time after school.
Pisey and Monita’s teachers are unanimous: Armed with a Cambodian dictionary and impressive drive, the girls are doing well. Pisey says having two teachers at the front of the class helped a lot.
Still, she says, “It’s very hard for me because I don’t know how to speak English very well.”
Less than 60 percent of Minnesota’s English learners graduate on time, compared to 80 percent of all students. Wide gaps in math and reading proficiency persist. A sweeping proposal by Rep. Carlos Mariani, D-St. Paul, aimed at strengthening services for such learners is making its way through the Legislature. Meanwhile, more Minnesota schools are trying out the co-teaching method.
The Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan school district set out to try the model in 2008. The district, where 6 percent of students are learning English, leans only on teachers who volunteer to co-teach. Still, the model has spread from six to 52 pairs of co-teachers in all grades, says Leah Soderlund, the English learner coordinator.
In 2011, Minneapolis, with 25 percent English learners, went all in with co-teaching in close collaboration with St. Paul. Jana Hilleren, the executive director of multilingual services, says the schools most ahead in the transition have seen marked gain on an English proficiency test.
The transition, though, has also generated angst. The district hosted a workshop with principals last summer to help them improve teacher buy-in. It has vowed to offer more training for educators.
St. Paul’s shift at the high school level has also met pushback.
Mary Cathryn Ricker, president of the St. Paul teachers union, said recent member accounts of the English learner shift gave her a feeling of deja vu, after last fall’s mainstreaming of students with emotional and behavioral disabilities.
“In both cases, we made a decision to go from one one-size-fits-all approach to another without taking the time to listen to teachers and explore a middle ground,” she said.
The district offered some training last year, but Ricker said some teachers ended up Googling “co-teaching” after finding out they were called to do it at the start of the school year. Ricker said teachers report having passed students who haven’t met the standards of their classes. Some just feel bad failing kids who work extremely hard, and a few feel pressure from administrators to do it — “a frightening, demoralizing situation,” Ricker said.
At a recent meeting with administrators, English learner teachers argued the new access to mainstream classes is meaningless and counterproductive if students lack the language skills and years of content background needed to keep up. In some classes, “The majority of the information is going right over kids’ heads,” said Shelly Bertrand, a teacher at Washington Technology Magnet.
Teachers said a push for timely graduation shouldn’t trump graduating students ready for college and careers. They pointed to the high percentage of St. Paul students who take remedial classes on local campuses — a statistic the district brings up as a reason to expose students to content classes sooner.
Privately, some English learner and mainstream teachers said they also worry that they are discouraging the English learners in their classes and failing to push advanced mainstream learners.
George Thawmoo, who is Karen, and his wife, Jane Sommerville, first learned of these changes when their sons brought home tentative class schedules for the next school year. The boys, a ninth- and a 10th-grader at Como Park High School, arrived in the U.S. in 2012. In a refugee camp in Thailand, their school had limited resources; the year before joining their father in Minnesota, they stopped going altogether.
This year, the boys are taking art and physical education with mainstream peers. Lor Ler Kaw, the 10th-grader, says friends have helped translate for him. His parents were alarmed to see he was poised to take several mainstream classes such as social studies next year.
“It’s like throwing somebody in the Mississippi River without knowing how to swim,” said Thawmoo, who with Sommerville penned a complaint to the state education commissioner.
Teachers recently came in to explain the shift for members of the district’s Karen parent council, whose chair spoke of “an outpouring of calls from Karen parents.” The district said the Latino and Hmong parent councils aren’t yet “looped into the changes.”
School board member John Brodrick urged the district to listen to teachers in a recent sharply worded statement, saying they are “almost in rebellion.”
But board member Chue Vue, a former English learner and a district parent, says St. Paul is moving in the right direction. Among families of Hmong descent, including his own, the concern has traditionally been that kids ready to tackle mainstream content are lingering in sheltered classes. He, his siblings and children all opted out of English language services.
“Keeping kids in separate-taught classrooms when they are ready for the regular classroom experience is not helping them,” Vue said. “The question is when do we know they are ready?”
Experts agree that co-teaching at the high school level works and holds a lot of promise. They caution that students who come to the U.S. with limited or interrupted formal education might not be ideal candidates in the early years after their arrival.
Kendall King, an expert on English learner education at the University of Minnesota, says it’s important to remember students can take from five to 11 years to perform at a native speaker’s level academically.
“While this model has a lot of potential, it will not work for all English learners,” she said. “It’s really important to be realistic.”
A careful rollout is key at the high school level, where more advanced content magnifies gaps in student preparation. Andrea Honigsfeld, the author of a book about co-teaching that acknowledges St. Paul’s pioneering role, says the model’s popularity is growing rapidly.
Her top recommendation to the districts she consults is to pilot the model on a small scale, with only teachers who volunteer and solid training in co-teaching practices. She also urges districts to involve guidance counselors and others to decide who is ready for these classes, not just relying on test scores.
St. Paul officials say it is a misperception that the district expects students to move up the English skill levels fast — or that it is bent on four-year graduation. Agbamu points to Humboldt High School, where the staff has rallied around an understanding that some students need as many as six years to graduate prepared.
Agbamu said the past few weeks have offered “an awakening to the need to engage teachers in this discussion, meet them where they are at, but also be ready to move them forward.” The district will provide more co-teaching training this year and ensure more joint planning time.
Meanwhile, it will hold off on plans to launch co-taught classes for Level 2 students — but not indefinitely.
“We are not going to debate equity,” said Matt Mohs, the district’s chief academic officer. “We are not going to go back to sheltered models that are protective and almost paternalistic.”