Madison To Overhaul ESL Program

A state audit is harshly critical of the school district for failing to successfully teach immigrants language skills.

Stung by low test scores and high dropout rates for non-English-speaking students, the Madison School District will dramatically alter the way it teaches its surging population of Latino and other immigrant children next year.

The overhaul of the district’s English-as-a-second-language program (ESL) has been in the works for nearly a year, but the need for the change was underscored Tuesday by the release of a state audit that harshly criticizes the district for failing to teach immigrant children the language skills they need to succeed.

“In general, the program and the district as a whole are not adequately meeting the needs of limited-English proficient students and their families,” says the report by the Department of Public Instruction.

The report cites the “poor academic performance” and “unacceptably high dropout rates” for non-English-speaking students as evidence. Students are mainstreamed into English too early, then left to languish without sustained academic support, the report says.

The district must hire more bilingual certified teachers and provide help fo non-English-speaking students for a much longer period of time, the DPI says. The district has until June 1 to submit an improvement plan.

Superintendent Art Rainwater acknowledged “serious deficiencies” in the district’s ESL program Tuesday and said major changes are in the works.

“As our student population changed, we didn’t change to meet their needs,” he said. “This report clearly points that out. We are going to have to do business differently.”

Juan Jose Lopez, a Hispanic School Board member who often has questioned the district’s ESL approach, called the report’s conclusions “shameful” and said he was angered that the district didn’t correct problems sooner. “I feel let down,” he said.

Rainwater said the district needs “a complete mind shift.” The education of limited-English students must become the responsibility of all district staff, not just ESL teachers, he said. A major staff training effort will be part of the district’s new approach, as will the hiring of more bilingual teachers, he said.

Those changes will cost money, although how much isn’t known, Rainwater said. “How we fund this will be a major issue, but it’s an issue we have to overcome.”

The district also will dramatically change how it teaches non-English-speaking students. Young students with little or no English skills will first be taught to read primarily in their native language, then gradually taught English — a major shift from the current approach that immerses them almost immediately into English.

These students will learn science, math and other subjects in their native language, too, so that they don’t fall behind in those areas while learning English.

Lopez called that “a positive approach” because it will help immigrant children retain their native language while attaining English skills.

The district hopes to avoid a problem occurring now in which students know enough conversational English to get by on the playground but never master language skills needed to read and write well as they progress through school.

Supporters say the change will finally give the district a true bilingual program, although district officials shy away from the baggage-laden term “bilingual” because of its multiple definitions and controversy over the approach in states such as California and Arizona. Madison officials prefer the phrase “native language instruction.”

Critics of bilingual programs say the approach can actively discourage the assimilation of immigrant children into mainstream society. But supporters say it effectively teaches English while preventing immigrant students from falling behind academically.

Janna Heiligenstein, coordinator of Madison’s ESL program, said students ultimately will grasp the academic principles of English faster if they master their own language first.

“We want kids to have that strong base — this is so key for people to understand,” she said. “Once you know how to read in your own language, you can learn to read a second language quite quickly.”

The new approach should boost the involvement of minority parents because their children’s homework will be in their native language, said Heiligenstein, who was hired last fall to revamp the district’s ailing ESL program.

The district’s ESL population has been increasing for years but exploded two years ago, primarily due to an influx of children from Mexico. There are now 2,150 ESL students, up about 800 students from two years ago and comprising 8.6 percent of the district’s total student population.

Spanish-speaking students make up the largest group within the ESL population, and they are the most likely to need the most help, Heiligenstein said. Many of their parents know little English, and some are not literate even in Spanish, she said. By contrast, today’s Hmong students, once the neediest population within the ESL program, are coming to school more fluent in English because they are now second- and third-generation Americans, she said.

About 30 percent of Latino students in Madison don’t graduate from high school, and for those who do, their academic skills are typically very low, Heiligenstein said.

The district’s new approach will be phased in over several years, depending on the availability of bilingual teachers and the concentration of ESL students at various schools, Heiligenstein said. Some schools, such as Midvale Elementary, are further ahead in planning for the changes than others, she said.

Midvale is among Madison schools singled out by the DPI for moving in the right direction. The near West Side school, which teaches grades kindergarten through second, has the district’s highest percentage of ESL students — 150 of its 387 students, or nearly 40 percent — and a majority are Spanish speakers.

Throughout this school year, the entire Midvale staff has worked to reshape how it teaches these children, and some of the new approaches already are being tried. For instance, the school’s 23 Spanish-speaking kindergartners spend more than two hours daily away from their regular classroom in a “literacy block” where only Spanish is spoken. And in Susan Covarrubias’ first-grade classroom, Spanish is used part of the time as a bridge to draw Latino students into English instruction.

Next year, Midvale will dive further into native language instruction. Four of its classrooms will have only Latino children, with the students grouped according to their level of English ability. Covarrubias, a certified bilingual teacher, will teach the classroom with the least English-proficient students, and she will use Spanish all day in her class for all subjects.

“Once they know the process of reading and how a written language operates, these students will be able to make a faster transition to English,” Covarrubias said. Plus, the approach will allow the students to take pride in their native language and in the richness of their home life without interrupting their educational development, she said.

The Latino students will attend recess, eat lunch and be taught art, gym, computer and music with English-speaking students, so they won’t be isolated, said Principal Jennie Allen. Even the students in Covarrubias’ classroom will spend about 30 percent of their school day with English-speaking students.

“To be bilingual is truly a talent,” Allen said. “We’re using their native language as a strength, not a liability. It’s a different way of thinking about it.”

The DPI, which supports bilingual programs, said the approach Madison intends to take has been research-tested and found to be highly successful. Other state districts, notably Sheboygan and Wausau, already use it to great effect, said Tim Boals, DPI’s consultant for bilingual and ESL programs.

“My feeling about Madison is very upbeat and optimistic,” said Boals, who wrote the report critical of the district’s current approach. “The new ESL coordinator has a handle on what the research says, and I think the central office is 100 percent behind her.”

What the audit found

An audit of the Madison School District’s English-as-a-second-language program by the state Department of Public Instruction found these main problems:

* Limited-English students are “underidentified and underserved.”

* There is a lack of academic support services for students at intermediate to advanced English proficiency levels.

* There is an inadequate plan for the training of both ESL and regular education staff with regard to meeting the needs of ESL students.

* Spanish-speaking students do not receive enough support from bilingual certified teachers.

Under strengths, the DPI report said the district’s new ESL coordinator, Janna Heiligenstein, has “a clear sense of how the program and the mainstream must restructure to meet the needs of these students” and that she “has the full support of the superintendent and his administrative staff” in bringing about those changes. The report also says there are many positive examples in the district of “caring teachers and administrators” providing for the needs of ESL students.

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