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Dual-language immersion programs serve needs of Minnesota students

Brittany O'Connor presented a typical math lesson to her third-graders Tuesday, but she taught it in an unconventional way - in Spanish.

O'Connor's 23 students are part of Little Canada Elementary School's growing dual-language immersion program - the Roseville school district initiative that pairs students who want to learn Spanish and native speakers with limited English skills.

School officials say the concept has a proven track record nationally of boosting the academic achievement of native and new English speakers, with students emerging from the program after middle school fluent in two languages.

Teaching much of the day in another language is not something O'Connor, a Minnesota native who minored in Spanish in college, expected to do when she began her teaching career. But her time studying abroad helped prepare her, and consistent use of the language has improved her fluency.

"I try my best to be bilingual," she said. "It's getting easier, but it can still be difficult."

GROWING NEEDS

Little Canada's dual-language class is one example of how Minnesota schools are addressing the needs of the growing number of multilingual students.

In the past decade, the number of students with what state officials call "limited English proficiency," or LEP, has grown by 11,000, to 70,462, nearly a 20 percent increase. The latest state data show more than 8 percent of all Minnesota students now qualify for LEP services.

St. Paul and Minneapolis still have some of the Twin Cities metro area's largest concentrations of LEP students - St. Paul Public Schools has 13,011 students classified as having limited English proficiency, or 35 percent - but other metro districts are catching up.

St. Paul and Minneapolis actually saw their numbers of English learners decline along with overall enrollment since 2005, with all the growth coming in suburban and rural districts, enrollment data show.

Roseville had one of the Twin Cities' larger increases. The number of district students learning English as a second language has leapt 125 percent since 2005, according to state data, and more than 1,200 now qualify for LEP services.

During the 2014-15 school year, Minnesota spent $137 million on services for students learning English, state records show. Roseville spent $3 million, and St. Paul spent $24 million.

Statewide, English learners often struggle academically. Only 64 percent graduate from high school on time, and LEP students score proficient on state achievement tests at a fraction of the rate of their native-speaking classmates.

The Roseville district developed its dual-language program amid a growing demand for LEP services and a desire to offer a foreign-language immersion option, Little Canada Principal Garin Bogenholm said.

School leaders wanted to improve the academic success of students learning English while recognizing their native language skills were an asset, not a liability.

"We don't want anyone to give up a first language to learn a second language," Bogenholm said.

The program began four years ago with two classes of kindergartners. A grade level has been added each year since then, and plans call for the program to eventually reach into middle school.

CLASSROOM LEADERS

Little Canada's dual-language immersion program brings together students like third-graders Eli Faulkner, an English speaker who wants to learn another language, and Stephanie Tarrios Sosa, a Spanish speaker working to improve her English skills.

In kindergarten, the classes are taught almost entirely in Spanish. By the end of elementary school, English and Spanish share equal time. About 70 percent of Eli and Stephanie's class is in Spanish.

The format allows Eli to be immersed in a foreign language so he can quickly improve his understanding and, he said, "one day go to another country and understand what people are saying."

Stephanie gets added academic help by having most of her instruction in her native language. As a bonus, she can use her Spanish skills to help Eli and her other classmates.

"When he doesn't know a word, I tell him the word and help him sound it out," Stephanie explained.

Student collaboration boosts the confidence of everyone in the class, Bogenholm said.

"These are opportunities for (Spanish-speaking) students to be leaders in the classroom and to have other students in their class who look like them," he said.

This spring, Little Canada's third-grade dual-language classes will take the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments, or MCAs, for the first time. School leaders acknowledge that scores initially will likely be lower than those of conventional students, but they insist proficiency of all students will rise as their multilingual fluency improves.

EVOLVING APPROACH

Roseville schools' dual-language program is a window into the evolving world of instruction for English learners as students who once spent much of their days working with language tutors are more often bringing their native languages into mainstream classrooms.

State lawmakers emphasized this approach in 2014 by passing the Learning for English Academic Proficiency and Success (LEAPS) Act. Supporters say it is one of the nation's first comprehensive laws to improve the academic outcomes of students learning English.

At the heart of the law is the idea that multilanguage skills are an asset and not a liability for Minnesota's 70,000 LEP students. The law calls for better tools to measure and recognize their native-language skills and to improve training for all classroom teachers.

Michelle Benegas, a Hamline University professor and outgoing president of Minnesota Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages (MinneTESOL), said training mainstream classroom teachers to better understand and respond to the needs of English learners should have a significant impact on the students' academic skills.

"The mantra in my field is all teachers are language teachers," Benegas said. "This is the work of everyone."

Benegas is working to help school districts better prepare mainstream classroom teachers to meet the needs of English learners. The training will not eliminate the need for ESL teachers, but should help students better understand their lessons and the "academic language" they need to be successful in school.

CHALLENGES AHEAD

The LEAPS Act might have improved Minnesota's focus on teaching multilingual students, but those who teach English as a second language say many other changes are needed, too.

For example, the law, which is being implemented this year with the help of $441,000 in dedicated funding, has few teeth to ensure all districts wholeheartedly embrace the changes, supporters say.

And, they say, lack of enforcement means teacher training and support for multilingual students could vary by district.

Further complicating matters, many schools struggle to find qualified teachers to work with English learners. In Roseville, Principal Bogenholm said that only a handful of applicants apply when a multilingual teaching position opens.

"It takes a very special teacher to teach in a dual-language program," he said.

Pending changes to streamline Minnesota's teacher-licensing system might help, but the applicant pool likely would still be smaller than those for traditional teaching positions.

Another challenge is how long it takes to learn English. In the last two-year state budget, lawmakers added $3.1 million in new funding to extend the time students could receive ESL services to seven years. However, not every student gets that much time.

Sam DiVita, who teachers at LEAP High School in St. Paul, said more time would be particularly beneficial for recent immigrants at his school. Many are considered "students with limited interrupted formal education," who struggle to learn English and to earn a high school diploma in the time allowed by state law.

The LEAPS Act calls for school officials to count and report those students in their districts for the first time. Their academic and linguistic progress also must be regularly reported.

But DiVita said the best way to help the students is to give them more time in school. Current law allows them to attend public school until age 21, but some educators want the age cap increased.

"These students need more time," DiVita said. "Most of these learners are highly motivated. They want to move through the system and get to the next level."

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