Two generations ago, children who spoke Spanish in Santa Fe schools were made to kneel on pencils or grains of rice. At sports team practices, they were punished with extra laps for talking in their native language. Edward Tabet-Cubero, assistant superintendent of curriculum and professional development for Santa Fe Public Schools, knows because he grew up, like his parents grew up, not being taught his family’s native language after his grandfather was made to suffer for speaking it at school.

"The Spanish was beaten out, literally, of our family," he tells a group Kellogg Foundation fellows visiting El Camino Real Academy, where they've come to learn about bilingual education and racial equity. "There was no motivation in our family to teach it…I found myself in college paying tuition to attain a language that was beaten out of my family."

Two generations later, several of his daughters are enrolled in dual-language programs at their schools, and he's happy to see them able to write notes, in Spanish, to their Spanish-speaking abuela abuela in her birthday cards.

That shift from vilifying to valuing the Spanish language is playing out in Santa Fe schools as the district works to serve thousands of students here for whom English is not their native language. The work begins with dismantling the sense among families that the Spanish spoken in their homes is not as valuable as the English their children could learn elsewhere. It's also about dispelling the idea that an education means drilling English in while native languages and the history and culture and family connections that come with knowing them trickle out.

Sandra Rodriguez is the SFPS director of multicultural education.
Sandra Rodriguez is the SFPS director of multicultural education. | Elizabeth Miller

"Parents know their children need to know English to be successful. They don't necessarily know they need to know Spanish to succeed. That's work we as a community will have to do. That's going to be key," says Sandra Rodriguez, director of multicultural education for SFPS.

About 3,000 of the roughly 13,000 students in the district have been identified as English language-learners, though there are likely many more.

The days of corporal punishment for speaking Spanish might be long gone, and everyone from the local superintendent to the state cabinet says that literacy in both English and Spanish helps students, yet schools are still struggling to fulfill that vision. Even as schools work to identify gifted students among the English language-learners and reach them with enrichment programs, funding shortages, a limited and often rotating supply of bilingual teachers and lingering attitudes that undervalue Spanish fluency present obstacles.

Meanwhile, the required tests continue to drive a very different message home: Tests used to guide teachers' instruction—not to mention assess schools' performance and evaluate teacher effectiveness—are often only available in English. Last year, some students were given an option to listen to translated audio of the math questions for new standardized tests, but the language arts portion assesses only English. Students who are just learning the language, and may still be receiving as much as 80 percent of their instruction in Spanish, were tested on their grasp of a language they're not yet fluent in.

"If they're in an 80/20 model, in other words, 80 percent of the instruction is in Spanish in the early years, and then they're tested in English, well how does that reflect what the students know? It doesn't. It can't," Rodriguez says. "How would you assess someone in a language they don't know?"

English-only testing advances an English-only agenda, she says.

"To say that we value Spanish, we really want you to learn Spanish, but then we turn around and test them in English, the message to the kids and to the parents is very loud and clear," says Rodriguez, who grew up in Roswell, where she wasn't allowed to speak Spanish in schools or take it as a course in high school. She spoke it at home and learned to read it in college.

Principals are finding workarounds, like using Spanish-language Standards Based Assessment tests, recently abandoned as the test of choice by the New Mexico Public Education Department in favor of the more stringent Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) test. There's also a prescription for patience with low test scores, the latest rounds of which showed an average of less than a quarter of Santa Fe students meeting or exceeding the expectations for their grade level.

Achievement gaps can be especially visible in the early grades. For example, the third grade language arts tests show schools like Acequia Madre, Carlos Gilbert and Wood Gormley, which all have a low number of English language-learners, scoring with half or more of their students in the top two tiers. At schools with a higher number of students learning English, like Sweeney, Ramirez Thomas, Nina Otero Community School or El Camino Real, closer to 10 percent earn the highest marks.

"I think it requires principals to know that there's a different timeline for a school to demonstrate success. That's the starting line," says David Call, dual-language coordinator for El Camino Real Academy. "It's more complicated with teacher evaluations tied in. If I were in the classroom, I would be on the phone every day saying, 'I welcome an assessment, but assess my students in the language they're learning in.'"

Teachers' unions are calling out the state for that flaw in its teacher evaluation matrix via a lawsuit. Their plea that a judge halt the practice of tying evaluations to test scores hasn't yet resulted in change, though the decision on an injunction is expected any day.

Even "short cycle assessments," meant to mark gaps in student learning and tell teachers where to concentrate their instruction, like the Discovery Education Assessment tests, are also often only available in English.

"How is that helpful if that's what's supposed to be guiding education?" Call asks. "I understand the accountability piece, I really do, but let's have a conversation about what types of assessment work."

The district says it's working to translate those tests.

Options Abound

The state has approved five options for bilingual education, each with a varying amount of instructional hours per language and different emphasis—and all are in action in Santa Fe schools.

The dual-language model used at El Camino Real, César Chávez and Sweeney elementary schools; at Ortiz Middle School; and, for grades K-2, at Ramirez Thomas Elementary, has a goal of preparing students to be bilingual and biliterate through concurrent instruction in both languages at all grade and proficiency levels. A maintenance model for students not yet fluent in English to learn that language while not abandoning their "home" language before moving to English only classes when proficiency is demonstrated is in use at Amy Biehl Community School, Kearny Elementary, Nava Elementary and grades 3-5 at Ramirez Thomas.

In the transitional or "early exit" model, employed at Nina Otero, Piñón Elementary and Capshaw and De Vargas middle schools, the goal is, as the name implies, to transition students from their native language to English proficiency whether they are "academically fluent" yet or not. It is, according to Rodriguez, the most destructive model to native languages.

An enrichment model for those already fluent in English but looking to develop further fluency in the "home" language is used only at Santa Fe's Mandela International Magnet School for seventh and eighth grades (just 7 percent of students there are English language-learners). The heritage model, used at Capital and Santa Fe high school along with the maintenance approach, provides language acquisition for students whose families may have lost fluency over the generations.

"Our preference is for the dual-language model; however, it's also the most resource-intensive," says Superintendent Joel Boyd. "And the reason it's our preference is that it's the preference of families."

Superintendent Joel Boyd visits a bilingual classroom at Ramirez Thomas Elementary on the first day of school this year. He says the district knows dual-language models have the best outcomes for students.
Superintendent Joel Boyd visits a bilingual classroom at Ramirez Thomas Elementary on the first day of school this year. He says the district knows dual-language models have the best outcomes for students. | Elizabeth Miller

Boyd, like Rodriguez and Tabet-Cubero, says that research shows that dual-language students outperform their monolingual counterparts. In an increasingly global world, it will become essential to abandon a monolinguistic approach to education in America, he adds. In Europe, it's not uncommon to be fluent in two, or even three languages.

That's not to say that transitional programs can't be successful, and the district's philosphy allows schools to choose what works best for their communities.

"I don't think there's any debate about the benefits of being bilingual," Boyd says. "The data shows learning two languages actually enhances both languages."

That's long-term data. In the short term—like annual PARCC test scores—those benefits can be harder to read.

Overall, the district says it sees improvements in student performace year to year but concedes there is still room to do better.

Many of the schools with a high percentage of English language-learners report low scores on standardized tests. This year's test results, released just last week for elementary and middle school students, show schools with a significant percentage of their students identified as English language-learners seeing fewer students evaluated at a level 4 or level 5 than schools with more native-English-speaking students. At El Dorado Community School, for example, where 29 of 578 students were English language-learners, 24 percent of students scored at level 4 or 5 in their eighth grade language arts assessment, compared to 4.8 percent at De Vargas, where 98 of 315 students are identified as just learning English.

Witnessing such gaps led Sweeney Elementary's teachers and staff to make a radical shift last year—to switch their 62 percent of students who are English language-learners from a transitional model to a dual-language approach.

"Looking at the test scores and looking at the achievement gaps between our English language-learners and our English-only classes, it was despairing, and we decided we needed to really do something different," says Theresa Liebert, principal of Sweeney. She grew up in a Spanish-speaking family but was never taught to speak it herself. She learned that as a teacher at Sweeney.

The transitional model provided children with a decreasing amount of instruction in their native language, beginning at 90 percent in kindergarten and tapering down to 50/50 by fifth grade. Beginning last fall, Sweeney began to alternate weeks of instruction in English and Spanish, a 50/50 split for all grades, that moved through steadily advancing material, rather than repeating any content as the language switched. The school was already well staffed with bilingual teachers, enabling it to make that change.

Bilingual education offered in Santa Fe Public Schools employs one of these five state-approved models. They generally focus on helping Spanish speakers attain fluency in English.

Dual-Language. Prepares students to be fluent and literate in both languages

  • César Chávez Elementary (PreK-6)
  • El Camino Real Academy (PreK-8)
  • Salazar Elementary (K-6)
  • Sweeney Elementary (PreK-5)
  • Ortiz Middle School (6-8)
  • Ramirez Thomas Elementary (K-2 only)

Maintenance. Instruction in both languages until proficient in English

  • Amy Biehl Community School at Rancho Viejo (K-6)
  • Kearny Elementary (K-6)
  • Nava Elementary (PreK-6)
  • Ramirez Thomas Elementary (3-5)
  • Santa Fe and Capital high schools (9-12)

Transitional. Early exit to English-only instruction

  • Nina Otero Community School (PreK-8)
  • Piñón Elementary (PreK-6)
  • Capshaw and De Vargas middle schools (7-8)

Enrichment. For students already fluent in English to develop better Spanish fluency

  • Mandela International Magnet School (7-8)
  • Heritage. Reacquisition of language skills for students who have lost fluency
  • Santa Fe and Capital high schools (9-12)

"It was painful at the beginning…The first probably month and a half of school, parents were coming, [saying,] 'Help me, my child came home with nothing but English homework, and I don't know how to help them,'" Liebert says.

Teachers started asking students to go home and teach their parents, using their homework to review what they'd learned in class. That worked. So, apparently, did the program as a whole, as short cycle tests began to reveal.

"We looked at our testing results in December, and it was amazing. The students in our dual-language classes had caught up that achievement gap by December and were scoring pretty near our English-only students," Liebert says. "At the end of the year, when we received our test results, those students in our dual-language classes had met the English-only classes and, in most cases, surpassed their scores."

When it came time for the state-issued test, the school opted to give Spanish-language students the SBA test in Spanish, rather than force them through PARCC, but there's no comparing those two test results.

"It's not even apples to oranges," she says, "it's apples to brownies. One is far sweeter than the other."

They've since settled on a model of partnered teachers, one of whom teaches in English and the other in Spanish, trading 25 students every two weeks.

The district's recent effort to identify gifted students among English language-learners means Sweeney may soon see nearly a dozen students join their gifted program.

"Why have we closed the doors to children's cognitive abilities by making them speak one language?" Liebert asks. "Let them take the tests. Let them perform in whatever language they're most comfortable at. You've got quiet little boxes over here that are just dying to tell you how much they know. Let them tell you in whatever language it is, and listen, just listen."

Few options exist for families in Santa Fe who have English-speaking children they would like to see be fluent in Spanish, as well.

El Camino Real's dual-language model is one. Its program aims for all students through eighth grade to become bilingual and biliterate in English and Spanish. For programs like this one, the goal is for eighth graders to read both Cervantes and Shakespeare in their original languages.

Dual-language immersion requires teaching other content areas—math and science, for example—in both languages, a different approach for those used to studying a foreign language as a separate course, as many English-speaking students would have experienced.

As the frequent refrains of "Four years of French and all I can say is 'Hello' and 'How are you?'" demonstrate, that segmentation hasn't been proven as an effective means of attaining fluency in another language. Immersion in the language you're learning, like a semester abroad program, yields more bountiful results.

This fall, the school decided not to offer an English-only kindergarten. Instead, parents chose to enroll their children in courses that are taught either 50/50 English and Spanish, or 80 percent of the time in Spanish. They lost just a couple families when they made that choice, and the school—which replaced Agua Fría Elementary—has the longest wait list in the district.

"That tells us that what we're doing…is something families are looking for," says Kristy Dillingham, assistant principal of El Camino Real.

The two-year-old building was constructed to hold 750 students from pre-K to eighth grade levels and now serves 882, according to Dillingham, who estimates that 80 percent of students in the school are English language-learners. On paper, that number is closer to 60 percent. Families don't always choose to identify themselves as speaking a language other than English at home.

Limited Funding and Resources

Though funding has stagnated for these programs—and the district is suing the state for generally leaving schools underfunded—there's clearly awareness that more should be done.

English language-learners are a protected class, and federal civil rights law requires doing everything possible to provide them educational opportunities.

But the funding isn't always there, and bilingual education is both very expensive and difficult to staff. Despite having a state constitution that protects Spanish-language heritage and education, those working with bilingual programs say there's little unity or support from the state. Federal funding for bilingual programs has remained flat, even during the Race to the Top campaigns, which saw a $4 billion boost sent to schools, according to Tabet-Cubero.

In addition to costs related to duplicating some course materials so they're available in both languages, these programs require bilingual-certified teachers, who are paid a stipend for their additional training and workload. To address a short supply of those teachers, the district has recruited people from Mexico and Spain to come work in Santa Fe schools on three-year visas. That can prompt its own set of headaches, as Capital High's principal reports that the school expanded its successful AP Spanish program, only to see the visa run out for the teacher leading those courses.

The district has also crafted a partnership with a university in Mexico, with the goal of ensuring there's an equally qualified teacher to replace one that's had to return at the end of his or her visa, Boyd says. There's also a new SFPS director of international partnerships to cultivate that teacher exchange and support those teachers when they arrive.

Though there has been some information and curriculum-sharing among schools, a policy of site-based curriculum and site-based management has allowed both personalization and fragmentation. It's good for principals, Tabet-Cubero says, but can take a toll on collaboration. Move neighborhoods, and your child could shift to a very different approach to learning a second language. District staff are just finishing Common Core standards for Spanish-language courses to align instruction for those students with their English-language counterparts. They started at the top, with high school and middle schools, and are just beginning to work on elementary school standards.

If the school board approves, this spring's class of graduates could also be the first to receive a seal on their diplomas to mark their achievement as becoming bilingual and biliterate.

What we see today in classrooms will, of course, shape the next generation's classrooms.

In a busy El Camino Real classroom divided into small groups to work on math, the teacher gives instruction in Spanish, and a squirming girl in a pony tail declares she doesn't understand. The teacher continues in Spanish—she has to, it's part of the teaching guidelines: to stick with the language and trust students to catch up, and they usually do. But one of the girl's classmates leans over and offers a little translation.

"The typical experience for Spanish-speaking kids is, you come to school and you feel stupid all the time, and this way, you're the smart kid half the time," Tabet-Cubero says.

Rodriguez points to the teacher exchange program as a role model for students: Look where a second language can take you—to a career, to another country, to someplace where you're needed and wanted and paid more for the skills from your family and your history. That kind of opportunity, that's valuation of Spanish.

"I really do think we're at a good place where people are ready for that change—they're hungry for it," Rodriguez says. "We actually have made progress. When you look at how much has changed over the past 50 years, we've moved. But that's what I'm saying. I think people are hungry for it now, because for as much change has happened, we want a lot more. But we're ready for it."