PPSD Cuts Language Classes Affecting Growing Multilingual Learner Population 

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Graphic courtesy of the Montana Office of Public Instruction

According to the Providence Schools website, 40% of the district’s students are multilingual learners. This means that almost half of the district’s students speak a language other than English as their first language.  According to Debra Jared in the Oxford Handbook of Reading (Oxford University Press, 2015, p. 165), “the two languages of a bilingual do not operate in isolation from one another.”  That is to say, we can not ignore the benefits of strengthening a student’s literacy skills in their first language before we attempt to teach a student a second language.  It is well known that Providence Schools have underperformed on measures of literacy in English such as the RICAS and the PSAT/ SAT.  According to the RIDE Assessment Data Portal, only 15.1% of students in the district were meeting or exceeding expectations for English Language Arts on the 2023 RICAS assessment and only 27.6% of students met or exceeded expectations on the Verbal section of the SAT.  Multilingual students consistently earn lower test scores in core subjects like Math, Science, and English Language Arts, along with diminished college readiness levels.  This is not the fault of the teachers or the students, but can largely be attributed to the lack of bilingual education opportunities available in the district.  Currently, dual language programs are only offered in the following schools:

  • Young & Woods Elementary School – Kindergarten – Grade 1
  • Spaziano Elementary School – PreK – Grade 5
  • Leviton Elementary School – Kindergarten – Grade 5
  • Lima Elementary School – Kindergarten – Grade 5
  • Gilbert Stuart Middle School– Grade 6

If students are able to learn in their first language, they are able to transfer that knowledge over when they learn their second language, English.  The best way to increase test scores is to increase dual language/ bilingual classrooms.  However, despite evidence to support this, the district has made dramatic cuts to the language classes offered to the multilingual students it serves.

On March 1, the Providence Public School District (PPSD) “displaced” 367 teachers, requiring each to re-apply for new jobs.  Out of those 367 displacement notices issued, 41% were for Bilingual/Dual Language (BDL), English to Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL), or World Language teaching positions.  The disproportionate loss of MLL teachers highlights the jeopardy facing our rich multilingual traditions and our students in Providence.  One example is cutting the Spanish program at Providence Career and Technical Academy entirely.  The explanation for the move is that the students already speak Spanish.  This is a common misunderstanding that needs to be addressed.  “Speaking the language” does not imply having academic-level literacy skills in the language.  It is crucial to teach students literacy skills in their primary language so they can gain the academic level they need to succeed.  According to Jody Noff in a blog for Vista Higher Learning, a publisher of multilingual curriculum, teaching Language Arts skills in Spanish “is not only important for native English-speaking students learning Spanish as a second language; it is also crucial in the development of literacy for native Spanish speakers as well. Therefore, it is essential that educators do not dismiss the role that native language literacy plays in the development of English mastery.”

Recently, some middle and high schools in Providence Public Schools shifted from a six-period to a five-period school day, purportedly to address score gaps and learning loss. Math and English Language Arts have expanded class time and meet year-round (180 days of instructional time).  Other classes, such as World Language, P.E. Science, and Social Studies classes are semesterized, so now the instructional time is reduced by half (90 days of instructional time).  This schedule change has also resulted in two out of six middle schools eliminating world language classes beginning in Fall of 2024.  This means that a third of the middle school students in the district will only have access to critical language learning skills once they get to high school.  By this time, it will be too late to help the multilingual students who have lost the opportunity to gain academic skills in their first language.  This also reduces the students’ ability to take higher level language classes for college credit such as AP classes and it reduces the likelihood that they will earn the prestigious Seal of Biliteracy because they will lack the proficiency needed to attain this distinction.  The dramatic displacement and elimination of programs specifically designed to support multilingual learners will have dramatic effects.

Multilingual Learner Advocates at 2024 Multilingual Education Advocacy Day.  Front row: Natalie Basal, Jennifer Gonzalez.  Back row: Wujuudat Balogun, Christian Medina, Valeria Gil Vanegas

At Multilingual Education Advocacy Day which was held on April 9 at the RI State House, a panel of speakers addressed some of these issues facing the state’s multilingual learners.  Valeria Gil Vanegas, a senior at Classical High School stated, “My journey with English was overwhelming.  All my life I knew that language gives you the power to express who you are, what you think, and what you like.  But when I came to this country, I did not have that power.  I lost it.”  She went on to say, “In my Spanish version, I used to be fun, powerful, and intelligent.  And in my English one, I was shy.  I didn’t have confidence at all and I became my own enemy.”   When asked about the need for the expansion of dual language programs into high schools in the district, she said, “I didn’t have the support I needed.  I want people to get the confidence that they need to get.  I want people to not just learn English, but also to be able to express who they are.  To be the people they are in their own language and English, too.  I just came two years ago and I’m just learning the language. I needed that help.  I was forced to learn English, but they didn’t help me to gain that confidence.”

Valeria Gil Vanegas at the State House

Wujuudat Balogun, also a senior at Classical High School, has been a strong advocate for multilingual learners.  She has been a powerful influence with Young Voices and has done a lot to promote the expansion of opportunities for multilingual learners.  When asked why she works so tirelessly for multilingual learners’ rights, she stated, “I don’t want another underfunded multilingual learners class to put a gap between people just like it did for me.  I want people who are behind me to have a better system than what I got.”  It is imperative that the district strengthen its programs for multilingual students like these.

Wujuudat Balogun at the State House

The Coalition for a Multilingual RI supports passing legislation that will address some of these issues.  Rhode Island faces a stark deficit in multilingual educators, with only 5% of its teachers being multilingual compared to the national average of 12%.  Some common reasons cited by multilingual adults for not becoming a certified bilingual/ dual language or world language teacher are financial barriers and a complicated certification process.  Failure to address this deficit directly is likely to perpetuate the achievement gap between MLL students and their peers.  Some of the displaced world language teachers could become dual language/ bilingual teachers, but this requires additional certifications that most don’t yet have.  The Bilingual, Dual Language, and World Language Teacher Investment Act, which was proposed by State Rep. David Morales, aims to support teachers from Rhode Island’s diverse multilingual community.   It would provide scholarships to help support our state’s dual language/ bilingual and world language educators so they can get the funding they need to teach the multilingual population in the city.

It has been proven that dual language/ bilingual programs are effective in raising test scores for multilingual learners.  For example, according to Janine Weisman for The74, “significant gains in ELA proficiency were made at Providence’s Leviton Dual Language School, from 12.3% in 2022 to 29.6% in 2023.”  No other school in the district made such a significant gain in English proficiency.  Our governor has already committed $16.6 million to MLLs in Rhode Island, representing the most urgent and direct approach to serving our diverse multilingual learner community.   It would be advantageous for the district to create new opportunities for dual language/ bilingual education by using some of the multilingual educators it has displaced.  Now is the time for PPSD to act to expand its multilingual opportunities rather than reduce them.

At a time when they should be doing more for their multilingual students, PPSD seems to be doing less.  It is imperative that they address the teacher displacements, the lack of multilingual educational opportunities, and the barriers to certification so that students can receive the high quality, multilingual education they deserve.  Teachers must play a central role in formulating solutions, and any legislative measures must incorporate their input. With 40% of its students being multilingual learners, PPSD must bridge this gap to foster a culturally diverse and engaged citizenry. The district has the opportunity to lead by example and serve as a model for other districts across the state.  Investing in multilingual education is not just about linguistic diversity; it’s about equity and empowerment. By prioritizing multilingual programs and supporting educators, PPSD can pave the way for a brighter, more inclusive future for all students.

Michelle Alas Molina is a member of the class of 2025 at Brown University. She studies International and Public Affairs and Latin American and Caribbean Studies. As the daughter of Salvadoran immigrants and a lifelong multilingual learner, Michelle is passionate about ensuring an equitable and fair education for all students. 

Dr. Erin Papa is an Assistant Professor of Educational Studies and World Languages Education at Rhode Island College and director of its World Languages Education Programs (BA, RITE, MAT). She also directs the Coalition for a Multilingual Rhode Island which aims to create a culturally sustaining educational environment where all RI students learn in multiple languages from Pre-K to college. She has taught multilingual learners in K-16 in school and community spaces  in the US, China, and Australia and previously worked for the Chinese Flagship and International Engineering Programs at the University of Rhode Island. She speaks English, German, Spanish, and some Mandarin Chinese.